This is the second in a series of weekly blogs about Idaho’s salmon and steelhead.

In 1992 a lone sockeye salmon returned from the Pacific Ocean to Redfish Lake in central Idaho. The solitary fish was named Lonesome Larry. He became the symbol of Idaho’s imperiled salmon and steelhead runs.

Historically, an estimated 100,000 sockeye salmon used to return annually to Idaho’s Payette and Sawtooth basins. In doing so, some fish would swim more than 800 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River and ascend more than 6,000 feet in elevation to reach their natal spawning sites in central Idaho.

Snake River basin salmon and steelhead must overcome four dams on the lower Columbia River (Bonneville, Dalles, John Day, and McNary) and four dams on the lower Snake River (Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite). Biologists count adult fish as they pass over the upper most dam on their journey back from the ocean.

The current federal government’s recovery goal for wild Snake River basin sockeye is a paltry 2,500 fish. As you can see from the chart below, the number of wild sockeye returning to Idaho annually remains well below the recovery goal. You can also see how the runs were trending downward as the last of the dams went into operation.

Proportionally, the situation is not much better for chinook. Before the dams, an estimated 1.5 million spring-summer chinook salmon returned to the Snake River basin annually. Approximately 5,800 wild spring-summer chinook returned to the Snake River basin in 2017, well short of the recovery goal of 124,000 fish.

Declines in wild Snake River basin steelhead track closely with spring-summer chinook. In 2017 just 15,500 wild steelhead returned to the Snake River basin, well short of the 100,000 recovery goal. 

More than $15 billion has been spent in an effort to recover salmon and steelhead. Clearly it’s not working. Something has to change if we want to recover our fish.

Next week I will write about smolt-to-adult ratios — a critical measure of  of progress toward recovery (or lack thereof).

Missed last week’s blog? Check it out now!