Northwest Salmon In Peril, And Efforts To Save Them Scale Up With Pacific Northwest salmon and steelhead on the brink of extinction, there are new efforts being brokered to save the famed fish.

Northwest Salmon In Peril, And Efforts To Save Them Scale Up

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Next we have an update on a 30-year fight over the survival of salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Some populations of this fish are now on the brink of extinction, due in part to climate change. This winter, observers are reporting the lowest numbers in a century of salmon and steelhead on trout run - salmon and steelhead trout on their salmon and steelhead trout runs. That adds new urgency to the efforts to help save the fish. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Idaho.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Here in the mountains and river gorges of northern Idaho, the Clearwater River is a key feeder to the Snake and Columbia rivers.


SIEGLER: This past fall, Idaho officials took the extraordinary step of closing the Clearwater to steelhead and salmon fishing, leaving guides like Jeremy Sabus scrambling for other work.

JEREMY SABUS: I was just purely sad. It's six weeks of my favorite time of the year. You get to shake hands with 3-foot trout.

SIEGLER: It's also his livelihood. In a black puffy vest and waterproof pants, Sabus stands next to his fiberglass drift boat on a concrete launching ramp. Old growth pine and fir trees line the lush banks of the river. Historically, chinook salmon and steelhead trout, weighing up to 20 pounds, make their epic journey here from the Pacific Ocean.

SABUS: And the pure fact that they swim 500 miles to say hello to us is pretty special to me.

SIEGLER: The closure was lifted a couple weeks ago. Sabus has cobbled together a few trips here or there, but most clients cancel.

SABUS: Driving all the way from Three Rivers Resort in Lowell all the way to Lewiston and not seeing any boats is just - the 23 years I've been fishing this river, I haven't ever seen that.

SIEGLER: That's about a 70-mile stretch of this famed Idaho trout stream along Highway 12 that follows the old Lewis and Clark Trail. Hotel bookings around here have also cratered. Restaurants emptied out. A study by Clearwater County estimated the economic hit of the closure at $8 million a month. That's huge for this sparsely populated area. These struggling river towns that used to depend on timber now lean heavily on fishing, hunting and boating dollars. But folks also rely on relatively cheap power, fueled partly by four hydroelectric dams downstream on the Snake in Washington state, dams that conservationists have fought for 30 years to get removed.

LIZZY MCKEAG: The problem is that now we're fighting an issue that we don't have much control over, which is a changing climate.

SIEGLER: In nearby Grangeville, the Idaho Wildlife Federation's Lizzy McKeag says one thing we can take action on closer to home is removing the dams. She says the science shows they're making things worse, slowing down river flows, making the water even warmer and the fish more vulnerable to predators.

MCKEAG: The most amazing thing about these fish is how resilient they are. And if we just give them half a chance, they're going to take advantage of that.

SIEGLER: McKeag sees the recent fishing closure as a possible tipping point that breaks a 30-year legal stalemate. It's pitted people against one another in towns like hers that depend on the salmon, cheap power and a water system that allows farmers to easily grow and export wheat.

MCKEAG: I think kind of the beauty and the struggle of the salmon and steelhead issue is that all of those economies are interconnected, especially in these small towns.

SIEGLER: And for the first time in years, people long diametrically opposed to one another are at least getting together and talking about this. They're tired of the lawsuits.

KIERAN CONNOLLY: We consider ourselves salmon advocates.

SIEGLER: Kieran Connolly is a vice president with the Bonneville Power Administration or BPA. It's the federal agency that sells the hydropower from the dams. He's not committing to removing the four dams on the Snake, but that question is at the heart of a court-ordered environmental review that's due out next month. And everyone agrees there's a sense of urgency. There are predictions that if more is not done, the fish could go extinct here in 20 years.

CONNOLLY: We're really trying to listen to our critics and try to say, how can we get together around the table and incorporate your ideas on how to make things better for fish? That's what we're trying to do.

SIEGLER: These 13 species of salmon and steelhead were listed as endangered or threatened on the Endangered Species Act after a lawsuit from Native American tribes in the 1990s. And since then, BPA and other agencies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on mitigation. The money goes to everything from fish ladders to get around the dams to hatcheries. And yet the salmon continue to decline. For the tribes, this represents another broken promise with the U.S. government. McCoy Oatman is a tribal councilman for the Nez Perce.

MCCOY OATMAN: I'm a direct descendant of one of the treaty signers, old Chief Looking Glass.

SIEGLER: Oatman says the Nez Perce depended on the fish for nutrition and survival before being forced onto a reservation by treaties that today only includes a stretch of the Clearwater River. But he sees hope in the fact that some dams are being removed in other parts of the northwest right now.

OATMAN: You know, I'm hoping that, you know, in my daughters' lifetimes, they'll be able to see free-flowing Snake River much like we have on the Salmon River.

SIEGLER: Oatman says a free-flowing Snake River would be a step toward restoring some ancestral fishing grounds for the tribe, not to mention the local economy that's come to depend heavily on the salmon and steelhead. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Grangeville, Idaho.

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