Salmon and steelhead in Idaho have been victims of some of the most shortsighted, ecologically destructive dam projects in American history
During the 1990’s returns of endangered Sockeye to Idaho’s Redfish Lake were so critically low that in one year only a single individual returned, earning him the nickname Lonesome Larry. Native Chinook and steelhead are both listed as threatened and coho are technically extinct in the Snake. Historically, salmon and steelhead migrated up the Snake River as far as Shoshone falls, however the construction of the three dam Hells Canyon project in 1959 blocked salmon from more than 350 miles of main stem and hundreds of miles of tributary habitat.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking of all the dams in Idaho though is Dworshak Dam on the North Fork Clearwater. Prior to the construction of Dworshak in 1966, the North Fork Clearwater was the principle spawning tributary for the Clearwater’s legendary B-run steelhead; 2 and 3-salt summer steelhead known for their tremendous size and tenacity. Dworshak, which is the third tallest dam in the United States, wiped out the entire race of fish in one foul swoop, blocking upstream passage less than 2 miles from the Clearwater. As late as the early 1960’s as many as 60,000 wild summer steelhead returned to the Clearwater alone, today the 10 year average for the entire Snake system is just over 46,000 fish.
State and federal hatcheries have sought to replace lost wild runs and today only about 25% of the fish that return to the Snake system are of wild origin. This means that in many parts of the Snake basin wild fish are now outnumbered by their hatchery counterparts and a recent status review of Snake River steelhead by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) cited high numbers of hatchery spawners as a major cause for concern.
Idaho is home to some of the most pristine habitat remaining in the Lower 48 states, yet the salmon and steelhead that do remain in the state are threatened with extinction. The Middle Fork of the Salmon River and the Selway River, a major tributary of the Clearwater, are both protected in wilderness and have the potential to be tremendously productive habitat for wild fish. Unfortunately, these fish must pass 8 mainstem dams on their migration to and from the Pacific. Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor; the four dams on the Lower Snake take a heavy toll on juvenile and adult salmon, produce relatively little energy and exist largely as a means of providing federally subsidized barging for wheat growers in Idaho.
The American Fisheries Society, the world’s largest professional organization of fisheries biologists, has twice passed resolutions calling for the removal of the four Lower Snake dams as the only way to recover wild salmon and steelhead in the Snake. Thus far, the federal government has refused to budge on the issue of dam removal, wasting more than 15 years and three failed Biological Opinions in what many hope will ultimately be a futile effort to save the Snake River dams. But time is ticking for Snake salmon and with a wave of dam removals sweeping the region we can only hope that the four Lower Snake dams will be gone before its too late.