As Gov. Little’s salmon workgroup begins a second year, members search for clarity. Their challenges are genuine, coming from a conflict between the looming extinction of Idaho’s wild fish and the cultural and political attachment to four 50-year-old federal dams.

Idaho anglers, guides and riverside towns are troubled and puzzled that the Fish and Game Commission and department professionals aren’t raising hell about the loss of Idaho fish—now accelerating toward extinction. In the pristine Middle Fork Salmon River, U.S. Forest Service scientists counted only 161 Chinook redds (nests) in 2019, where in the 1960s there were 20,000. Only 17 sockeye salmon returned last year, and Idaho’s steelhead fishery is on life support. Shouldn’t Idaho’s commissioners be pressing the governor for a new salmon policy? The current policy leads to extinction, forever impoverishing families and towns that depend on fisheries—and diminishing Idaho. Oregon and Washington salmon get better treatment; Idaho’s deserve better, too.

Talk of “salmon recovery” in Idaho is controlled now by those who don’t want to disturb a hydrosystem designed in the 1930s. Moving toward successful salmon recovery will require a new approach—and honest, bold political leadership.

In 1997, IDFG Anadromous Fish Manager Edward Bowles offered clarity in testimony at a congressional committee hearing. Mr. Bowles criticized the focus on process and challenged political leaders to get at the root of the problem and solve the salmon dilemma. Mr. Bowles (now chief of fisheries for the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife) saw a path forward:

“We cannot afford to let salmon recovery slip away by continuing to debate science,” he said. “This is not a biological issue—it is a social, economic and political issue. We know what the fish need. Salmon recovery studies and discussions must focus on how best to keep economies whole as the biological solutions for salmon are implemented.”

The science is clear—salmon need us to restore the lower Snake River, removing four federal dams that overwhelm all other recovery efforts. If these dams remain in place, Idaho salmon and steelhead will be lost. Idaho needs a new salmon policy, not a lurch backward.

Bowles concluded, “We know what the fish need. The important questions are can we provide an effective, affordable way to move commodities to market? Can we maintain a reliable energy grid? Can we reduce the threat to irrigation water [flow augmentation from southern Idaho]? Can we reduce the financial burden of a failed salmon recovery program for BPA and others?”

The answer to each of these questions is “yes.” Gov. Little’s task force should focus on finding those answers, and on leading a political effort to implement them, with help from Fish and Game commissioners, the Idaho Legislature and Congressman Simpson.

An Idaho salmon policy that restores the lower Snake River, while taking care of affected people, will make Idaho better, our economy stronger and citizens happier, and bring justice to Native Americans. We need a new salmon policy that brings our fish back. Tell the governor and your legislators.

Tom Stuart, of Boise and Stanley, is a board member of Idaho Rivers United.

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