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Free-Flowing Snake Still Best, IFG Says

by Rich Landers, Outdoors editor
Spokesman Review, October 4, 2000

George W. Bush has clearly stated that if elected president he would never consider breaching four Snake River Dams in order to save salmon and steelhead from extinction.

Idaho Fish and Game Department (IFG) biologists this week said it's too soon to take any options off the table.

"From a purely biological basis, existing information indicates the natural river option is best for the fish," said Ed Bowles, IFG anadromous fish manager.

However, he said the department recognizes this is only one of the factors decision-makers must consider. Social and economic legs also must be considered in making long-term recovery decisions, he said.

Vice President Al Gore has said that if he is elected, he will call a summit to sort the science and politics on saving the fish from extinction before calling for a course of action.

Bowles said interim action should be aggressive to reduce losses of endangered fish to seabirds and sea mammals. He said fishing should be more tightly regulated and the management of water spilled over Snake River dams should be tweaked to improve fish migration conditions

Meanwhile, the Snake River's best steelhead run in at least five years, maybe the best since 1992-93, is coming ahead of schedule.

Counted at Lower Granite Dam, the last Snake River dam fish must cross before reaching Idaho, this year's run is about 112 percent ahead of the 10-year average and 62 percent above last year's, according to IFG anadromous fish program coordinator Sharon Kiefer.

Early runs have a tendency to drop off sooner than normal, she warned.

But if the current forecast for the total steelhead run holds, 90,000 to 120,000 steelhead may cross Lower Granite this fall and next spring. That would be the largest since the 1992-93 run of 128,000 fish.

The catch-and-release steelhead fishing season began Sept. 1. On the Clearwater River. Anglers may keep hatchery-raised steelhead beginning Oct. 15.

This year's increased returns of salmon and steelhead is good news, Bowles said. "Although we have not turned the corner toward recovery, any upturn, even if primarily from nature's bounty, is welcomed and appreciated."

Yet this year's total chinook run of about 38,000, only 8,000 of which were wild, pales in comparison to the runs of 60,000 wild spring/summer chinook Idaho averaged in the 1950s and 60s," IFG records show.

This year's return of chinook salmon and the expected return of steelhead resulted from a combination of good river flows in the years these fish left the state as smolts, and because ocean conditions were right for nurturing the fish, IFG fish mangers say.

Smolt-to-adult survival rates, the real measure of success, were about 1 to 2 percent for chinook smolts migrating to the ocean in 1997, said Gregg Mauser, IFG fisheries biologist.

"Two percent is the minimum necessary for survival of our wild populations," he said.

"When the runs were healthy, under those types of flow and ocean conditions, we would have had in the neighborhood of 6-8 percent returns and that's what we should be seeing in order to begin rebuilding the runs.

"If all we get is minimum return rates with the best of conditions, that's the formula for extinction."

Fisheries biologist Dave Cannamela said the Snake River system fish hatcheries are not meeting their goals of replacing fishing opportunity taken away by Snake River dams.

"If we were to meet the hatchery mitigation goals for the Lower Snake program alone, we would have at least 50,000 spring/summer chinook coming back across Granite (Lower Granite Dam)," he said.

About 38,000 chinook salmon crossed over Lower Granite Dam this year, 30,000 of which were hatchery chinook.

Current scientific models indicate that federal and private hatcheries together could produce about 90,000 adult salmon back to Idaho if smolt losses caused by the lower Snake River hydro-power system were decreased, he said.

In the 1950s and 1960s, about 60,000 wild spring/summer chinook and 60,000 wild steelhead returned to Idaho each year. In 1957, Idaho anglers killed 39,000 wild chinooks. This year, they took about 8,000 hatchery chinook. Killing wild chinook is prohibited.

Recent chinook fisheries have been limited to the Clearwater, Little Salmon, and South Fork Salmon rivers and seasons have typically been very short.

"If we get good migration and ocean conditions, the fish will respond," said Mauser. "But we will not have successful hatchery programs or recovery of wild fish until we provide favorable migration conditions through the lower Snake River."

Rich Landers, Outdoors editor
Free-Flowing Snake Still Best, IFG Says
Spokesman Review, October 4, 2000

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