Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead are in trouble, and have been for quite some time. On April 22, 1992, which happened to be Earth Day – the federal government listed Idaho’s iconic Spring and Summer Chinook salmon under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and set out to protect and restore the species. After more than a century of habitat degradation, overharvest, and dam construction, these massive fish – sometimes called “King salmon” – were on the edge of extinction. Thirty years later, their future still remains murky.
Historically, the Columbia River Basin was one of the most productive Chinook salmon fisheries in the world. As part of this watershed, the Snake River once produced almost half of the basin’s Chinook, which flourished in the high mountain streams of Central Idaho. The Clearwater and Salmon River systems remain the best Chinook salmon habitat anywhere in the lower 48 states.
Entire ecosystems and industries are centered on these fish. In their migration from the ocean, Chinook salmon deliver marine-derived nutrients to streams nearly 1,000 miles from the Pacific. More than 130 distinct species depend on this natural conveyor belt – trees themselves are made of salmon.
Anglers, fishing guides and outfitters have built family businesses and legacies gathering Chinook. Into the 1960s, Idaho opened long seasons for wild Chinook fishing, and people flocked to the Salmon River for their shot at a “June hog” – the particularly massive wild Summer Chinook that ranged into Idaho in early summer each year. Some of these fish measured more than four feet long and weighed more than 75 pounds – a size necessary for the long migration back to Idaho. These Chinook migrate longer (900 miles) and higher (6,000 feet) than any others in the world.
The June hogs have since disappeared, victims of the species’ decline. Spring and Summer Chinook in the Snake River are now less than half that size, on average, and the populations remain close to disappearing.
In the thirty years since listing under ESA, significant progress towards recovery has not been made. In 1992, 12,673 wild Spring/Summer Chinook returned to Lower Granite Dam, the last dam on the lower Snake River. In 2021, only 6,556 wild fish returned, marking a 48 percent decline. Over the last five years, wild Chinook have returned at a rate that’s just 3.8 percent of the state’s goal for recovery. The work of the past thirty years has not worked. It’s time for a different strategy.
Billions of dollars have been invested in restoring salmon habitat here in Idaho, but achieving the full potential of these projects depends on getting more fish safely back to our rivers. That means making big changes downstream, and breaching the four lower Snake River dams. Restoring a free-flowing Snake River would ‘unlock’ the vast potential of Idaho’s salmon stronghold, and put Chinook on a real pathway to abundance.
2022 is the year for salmon. Take action today to let Northwest leaders know that this Earth Day is the time to change course, and pursue meaningful action to restore the Kings of Idaho, Snake River Chinook salmon.