Representatives from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes joined scientists, sockeye salmon advocates and construction workers in a Tuesday ceremony for a $1.4 million fish weir reconstruction at Pettit Lake Creek in the Sawtooth Valley, a move all parties hope will help restore a key piece of the region’s biological and cultural heritage.
The weir will be used to research Snake River sockeye salmon as they depart Pettit Lake and when they return two years later after a second stage of life in the Pacific Ocean. Ultimately, the goal is to restore natural spawning runs of salmon that were once an integral part of the tribes’ food source and culture.
Fort Hall Business Council Member Ladd Edmo spoke about ongoing efforts to recover the endangered species.
“The tribes place a priority on the unique genetic legacy of these sockeye,” Edmo told about a dozen people gathered at the site of the weir reconstruction on Tuesday.
Edmo honored the late Doug Taki, former sockeye program manager, and the late Kenneth Ariwite, former lead technician for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ sockeye program. He reminded those gathered that it was the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes who first petitioned the federal government to have the sockeye listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1991.
Edmo said prayers had been given for the sockeye recovery and to honor Ariwite and Taki. He then dug the first shovelful of dirt for the project to a round of applause.
In 1962, Pettit Lake was chemically treated and a barrier was placed to block the outlet on Pettit Lake Creek. These were “just two of the many factors contributing to the population becoming functionally extirpated,” according to a sign posted at the site Tuesday. Scientists, salmon advocates and tribal representatives agree that the primary impediment to salmon recovery in the Sawtooth Basin are dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers.
In 1995, the Pettit Lake barrier was removed and a weir installed to initiate recovery efforts. Over the last 25 years, many attempts have been made to restart the salmon populations. Nutrients have been put into the lake to restore the ecosystem and “egg boxes” filled with hatchery-produced smolts have been used to simulate natural spawning sites. Some salmon have spawned as they would ordinarily, living for two years in the lake before returning to the sea.
But Edmo said overall returns to the Sawtooth Valley are inadequate.
“We’d like to see 2 percent returns, but right now we are under 1 percent, which is not a sustainable run,” Edmo said in an interview. “The food sources in this river system were once like a market for us.”
The sockeye recovery projects at Redfish Lake are overseen primarily by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The recovery efforts at Pettit and Alturas lakes are the domain of the tribes, where natural spawning is the focus. Regardless of locality, both the tribes and the state work collaboratively to achieve a unified goal: sockeye salmon recovery.
That recovery could soon see a major milestone. Tuesday’s gathering also aimed to celebrate the expected imminent return of the first electronically-tagged, naturally-spawned sockeye salmon to Pettit Lake. Four years after spawning in the lake and two years after returning to the ocean, the sockeye had already passed the last of four dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers and was north of Salmon, Idaho this week.
“I tagged that fish myself in 2018,” said Kurt Tardy, current sockeye program manager for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. “We like to presume it is still making its journey. The next array sight would be at the Sawtooth Hatchery upstream of Redfish Lake.”
Several Pettit Lake spawners have returned to the Sawtooth Basin in the last two years. Before that it had been 20 years since any made it back.
Tardy said the spotlighted returning sockeye, which has not yet been named, has been tracked by a rice grain-sized passive integrated transponder, or PIT tag, that he inserted in the fish when it left Pettit Lake as a juvenile. Numerous antenna arrays along the Salmon, Snake and Columbia Rivers are able to recognize the fish as it swims from Pettit Lake to the ocean and back.
“This means progress,” Tardy said. “It means we have utilized science adaptively over the course of 20 years to achieve wild spawning returns to Pettit Lake. It has been an investment in using good science for the future.”
Tardy said once the fish is captured, staff can study its genetic composition to determine who its parents were based on DNA samples from its likely ancestors at area fish hatcheries.
“It could be from two captive adults that spawned naturally in Pettit Lake or the product of residual production in the lake, those fish that maintain the genetic characteristics of sockeye salmon, but are non-migratory. A third possibility is that it could be the product of a captive spawning adult and a residual sockeye salmon.”
Tardy said he was mostly concerned that the fish makes it all the way back and was not hoping for any particular genetic background.
“We want the lake and the species to determine what is best for returning wild fish, based on the current recovery strategies.”
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game reported in July that when Idaho sockeye were listed in 1991 under the federal Endangered Species Act, only four adult sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Basin. Only 23 sockeye returned between 1991 and 1999. Within that timeframe there were two years when no sockeye returned.
Over the last ten years the numbers have increased. From 2010 to 2019, the annual sockeye return to the Sawtooth Basin averaged 558 fish, with annual returns ranging from 17 in 2019 to 1,579 in 2014. This year experts are expecting an increased return rate as compared to 2019.
Many millions of dollars have been spent over the years on sockeye recovery, primarily by the Bonneville Power Administration, which operates the dams. Shoshone-Bannock Fisheries Department Policy Analyst Dan Stone said the tribes are determined to see full recovery.
“The tribes’ policy has always been that there is no bridge too far to recover this listed endangered species,” Stone said.
Stone, an enrolled member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, said the tribes’ members once ranged far and wide across the American West before they were concentrated at the Fort Hall Reservation during the 1800s. He shared during an interview a story passed down over many generations in his family that explains the origins of the Tuku Deka band of the Shoshone-Bannocks in the Stanley Basin.
The story is about an adventurous young couple who elope from Camas Prairie together for a journey through the Wood River Valley, ultimately settling in the Sawtooth Valley. Many animals provide them with guidance and safety along the way.
Stone said stories such as these also demonstrate the significance of salmon beyond its nature as an essential food source.
“There is a salmon medicine for us,” Stone said. “Part of this medicine is that salmon can show us that no matter how far away we go, we can always find our way home.”