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Remembering Lonesome Larry

Back in 1991 a single Sockeye Salmon constituted the entire run of fish to Redfish Lake in the Stanley Basin of the upper Snake River. That fish was nicknamed “Lonesome Larry“. The lake was named for the red spawning colors of these salmon and the species was then considered functionally extinct. Yesterday, biologists trapped the first two fish of this year’s run. 1,108 fish have been counted at Granite Dam, the final obstacle for the fish on the Snake River. Last year 907 fish passed the dam and 432 made it back to Redfish Lake. Signs are encouraging. This is the largest number since counting began following construction of the four dams on the Snake. Putting these numbers in perspective, from 1985 to 1998, a total of 77 fish made the 900-mile journey back to Idaho.

iga_ad4The returning salmon are the progeny of the nearly 150,000, mostly hatchery-raised, smolts released in 2007. Though the numbers of fish in the last two years is encouraging, it is a long ways from the 40,000 fish that Redfish Lake saw a century ago and a couple of years of fair returns cannot be seen as a sign of recovery just yet. The fish are the product of years of intensive effort. In 1991 the Idaho Sockeye Salmon became listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. When the numbers dwindled following dam construction, calls for drastic measures were heard from all sides, including removal of the four dams on the lower Snake. The Bugle covered the latest government recovery plan in May. A decision was to be rendered on the Biological Opinion (BiOp) this spring by U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland, but the Obama administration asked for more time to review the Bush-era plan. Redden has rejected the last two plans in 2000 and 2003 and threatened drastic measures if the new plan did not meet strict criteria for salmon recovery. Removal of the dams has never been a part of the government recovery plans, but Redden said he wanted to see that option in the new plan.

In a related report today, the Seattle Times reports that “Twenty-one community leaders from Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Wash., sent a July 8 letter to their senators and representatives asking to be included in any future assessments of the dams’ status“.  Leaders of the communities that sit upstream of the dams, at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers have become increasingly disillusioned over promises of prosperity that never materialized following construction of the dams.  The town leaders do not argue for a particular solution, but want to have a say in any solutions that are considered.

Though signs are encouraging, it will take several years of salmon returns in the vicinity of 2,000 fish before consideration can be given to de-listing the Snake River Sockeye population. Increased returns of the last couple of years are a result of court-ordered flow increases from the Snake dams that were never presented as part of the government plans and an increase in stocking activity when state officials became convinced that these species might become extinct on their watch. Sometime in the next couple of months, Judge Redden will receive and rule on the latest BiOp. It remains to be seen whether dam-removal will be part of the solution, or remain a major part of the problem.

Finally, I ran across this quote by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on the Idaho Rivers United website that seems to sum up the thinking of many involved in the debate, “We have built one dam [in the US] for every day since Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence…Surely among 75,000 there are a few mistakes .”

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