Northwest tribes making progress in quest to restore Columbia salmon runs

Three Northwest tribes and federal agencies are getting closer to understanding how to revive chinook and sockeye salmon runs on the upper Columbia River that were once among the most abundant in the world but were decimated by dams over the past century.

Leaders from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the Spokane Tribe of Indians met with leaders from three federal agencies and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Portland on May 22 to discuss progress on their historic agreement from last September.

The 20-year plan, separate from a related deal signed in December, marked the culmination of decades of work by the tribes, who were deprived of salmon following the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam near Spokane in 1938 and Chief Joseph Dam in Bridgeport, Washington, in 1955. The fish have historically been central to their way of life.

Both the tribal and federal agency leaders discussed a range of subjects, from acquiring the needed fish from hatcheries and moving them via truck to areas blocked by the dams. The Biden administration said it would allocate $200 million to the effort, but the parties agreed even more money would be needed.

Officials and tribes face challenges working with Canadian dams and hatcheries as well as competing interests for the Columbia’s water from hydroelectric and agriculture.

Caj Matheson, natural resources director for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said getting the reintroduction work underway was exciting and long overdue.

Members of the tribe have for decades been cut off from salmon that used to migrate to them on the Spokane River, a tributary of the Columbia. Salmon are gone from the river today due to Grand Coulee Dam.

There were once at least 10 million salmon moving through the 13,000 miles of Columbia River Basin waters each year before the dams were built, according to the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission. Today, many of these salmon species are among the most endangered in the West.

“Over the years, we’ve sat in rooms with so many federal agencies, so many people, so many leaders across this region,” he said, “and so often we’ve seen people nodding their heads in agreement and even people saying: ‘Yeah, it’s an injustice. What’s happening to you guys, what’s happening with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, it’s an injustice.’ And yet the wherewithal to be able to make that change just wasn’t followed through.”

The agreement was a long time coming.

About 24 years ago, the tribes urged the federal government and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which works on power plans and fish conservation, to discuss salmon reintroduction. In 2014, they undertook a feasibility study to explore that possibility, and in the fall of 2023, President Joe Biden acknowledged the years of injustice the tribes had experienced and committed a federal investment of at least $200 million to rectify it.

The Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration are involved along with the council, which is comprised of two governor-appointed representatives from Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho and is tasked with managing energy production in the Northwest along with the health of fish and wildlife in the Columbia River Basin.

So far, several hatcheries have provided researchers with tens of thousands of chinook eggs to study as the fish grow into smolts and then adults and then study them over several generations. Researchers have begun tagging the fish to observe their migration patterns.

Getting sockeye has been more difficult because one of the only hatcheries in the area that has them is in Canada. Scientists said procuring and tracking these fish across borders has been challenging because of bureaucratic procedures.

To get the fish back into needed areas, scientists are evaluating the effects of moving them on trucks. The method — called trap and haul — requires capturing the salmon, putting them in a truck and then driving and releasing them back into water in the desired location.

The idea would be to haul the fish directly to traditional tributaries where they would have spawned before the dams were built, such as the San Poil River on the Colville Reservation. This and other ideas to move fish via ladders are in their infancy, scientists said.

Officials also need to study juvenile fish migration patterns, fish behavior, genetic resiliency and hydraulic modeling over the next two decades. Scientists are trying to understand how to move water through the Columbia both for the fish and to meet increased demand for water storage from agriculture and hydroelectric dams.

Furthermore, a treaty between the U.S. and Canada that governs hydropower and flood control on the Columbia River is up for negotiation and renewal this summer. The treaty, originally implemented in 1964, did not take into account fish and river ecosystem health or tribal fishing rights and resources that are now protected.

There are 15 Columbia Basin tribes working with the two federal governments to negotiate protections and benefits for tribal resources in future versions of the treaty.

On the lower Columbia River, below Bonneville Dam in Cascade Locks, a decades-long battle over dams and fish restoration reached a turning point this year following a deal between the Biden administration and four tribes to restore 13 threatened and endangered fish runs and potentially breach four dams along the Snake River, the biggest tributary of the Columbia River. Such a move, however, would need to be approved by Congress.

The agreement also includes a promise — but not a guarantee — of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds and other money for wild fish restoration in the Columbia River Basin over the next decade.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors.


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