Like someone tilting a bucket into a sink, the Snake River pours winter into the sea. In a jumble of wilderness and mountains, nearly a thousand miles from any coast — and more than a mile, in places, higher than the sea itself — snow-melt funnels and gathers from a multitude of points, braiding into a river that sluices downhill with immense mass and remorseless flow.
Don Chapman and Stephen Pettit carry this epic sense of the river as they make a rare visit to newspapers in Spokane to advocate on behalf of wild salmon.
In the obscure realm of fisheries biologists, Chapman and Pettit are rock stars. It’s a realm in which the only glitter is that of water droplets in your beard or fi sh scales on your rain gear.
After decades sloshing around interior Northwest rivers, Chapman and Pettit know salmon the way few others do. And like the wild fi sh they’re hoping to preserve from extinction, they thrash their way upstream against political currents, against the weight of all of us in the incurious masses.
They have spent enough time among fi sh that they do not hesitate to point out what’s fishy:
After 12 years of “managing” the Snake and Columbia river systems to provide Endangered Species Act protections for 13 listed species of salmon, the managers have not moved salmon from the edge of extinction.
Scientists like Pettit and Chapman are disappointed that the Obama Administration’s fi rst “biop” [shorthand for Biological Opinion, a plan presented to federal Judge James Redden on how to restore runs of wild salmon] is essentially the same as Bush’s last biop.
The dismay among conservationists was palpable last month in Redden’s Portland courtroom when it appeared that science wasn’t taking its rightful place after all: The Obama plan continues to rely largely upon barging juvenile salmon downstream around dams, including four on the lower Snake — thus preserving the status quo of using the dammed Snake as a highway for commerce and a relatively small amount of hydro-power generation.
“The reason I hear the Bush plan was accepted is that with health legislation in the forefront and votes being critical, this was not the time to upset Northwest legislators with draconian [salmon protection] measures,” Pettit says.
“Draconian measures,” at least as far as shippers and the energy industry is concerned, include breaching the four federal dams on the lower Snake River as it passes through remote southeastern Washington.
Judge Redden, earlier this year, breathtakingly put dam breaching on the table, ordering that it must be included in salmon recovery plans in case all other remedies failed. It is hardly being taken seriously.
“Right now it’s a tail-end Charlie,” Chapman says. “It’s way down on the list of things that should be considered… .”
This is a failure, he says, because, “we are already down to 2 percent of the wild salmon and steelhead that were once here.”
This dire news is often masked by cheery — and misleading — stories that Snake River sockeye have rebounded from the single fi sh, dubbed Lonesome Larry, that returned to Redfi sh Lake in 1992 to nearly 600 in 2008. Or that last fall was a record year for steelhead fishing in the Snake.
“The sockeye return was a record, there was a record number of steelhead, the fall chinook return to the Snake was a record — I mean, why are we even concerned?” asks Pettit. “Well, those record numbers are hatchery fish.”
The Endangered Species Act does not care about hatchery fish, which are produced as if from a factory.
Scientists on both sides of the dam breaching question agree the benchmark for wild salmon recovery is a juvenile-to-adult return rate of 2 percent to 6 percent.
“In the 12 years we’ve been operating this system under the Endangered Species Act, only once did spring chinook blip above 2 percent. Most of the stocks — fall chinook, sockeye, steelhead — are at .5 [percent] to .7 percent. That’s a long way from recovery,” Pettit says.