June is National Rivers Month and Orca Action Month. One of these likely appeals to Idahoans more than the other, as pristine rivers are a regular source of pride for residents across the state. However, Idaho’s less apparent connection to Southern Resident Killer Whales (orcas) in Puget Sound is one worth celebrating and fighting for. Wild Snake River Chinook salmon from Idaho are a key part of orcas’ diet, but the decline of salmon has led to a similar decline for orcas. 

The fish that connect us

Orcas’ massive habitat ranges from Monterey Bay to northern British Columbia, though much of their time is spent in the inland waters of Washington State and southwestern British Columbia. Similar to many marine mammals, their movement is determined by their diet and food availability. Southern Residents rely on Chinook salmon for up to 80% of their diet.  

Historically, the orcas had no problem finding food – the Columbia River Basin was one of the most productive Chinook salmon fisheries in the world, with up to 30 million salmon returning annually. The Snake River, the largest tributary to the Columbia, once produced half of the basin’s Chinook salmon. Today, only about 1% of the historic population returns – impacting all who rely on them. 

Southern Resident orcas. NOAA Fisheries photo.

What’s the problem?

Central Idaho’s high mountain streams provide a cold water refuge and pristine habitat that these fish desperately need. The Clearwater and Salmon river systems remain the best Chinook salmon habitat anywhere in the lower 48 states. But the fish cannot access this habitat – four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington are blocking them out, and have been driving wild salmon and steelhead toward extinction for decades. 

Lower Granite Dam. ACE/Noe Gonzalez photo.

The orcas are feeling this impact. Research has shown that the death rate for Southern Resident orcas correlates with declines in Chinook salmon abundance. In December 2020, the Southern Resident population declined to a 40-year low of 74 individuals. This was more than a 25% decline from the observed peak population size of 98 individuals in 1995, 10 years before they were listed under the Endangered Species Act. Recently, a new female calf was reported in the J pod, bringing the Southern Resident’s population back up to 75 individuals, and bringing much needed hope to residents in the Pacific Northwest. 

A slew of stakeholders

The orcas aren’t the only ones hurting. There’s many other stakeholders that depend on these fish – anglers, outfitters and guides, river communities, and Tribes that have been promised access to healthy populations of these fish in treaties and other agreements with our federal government. 

Tribal communities across the Northwest recently came together during the Spirit of the Waters Totem Pole Journey to draw attention to the dire state of both orcas and salmon. These communities have watched their culture, relatives, and customs be forced to adapt or disappear altogether as these species swim on the brink of extinction. As JoDe Goudy, former Chairman of the Yakama Nation, stated, “if salmon are not part of our way of life, we cease to be.”  

House of Tears Carvers of Lummi Nation travel to Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho. The totem pole features Chinook salmon alongside an orca carrying her baby on its nose – reflecting Tahlequah, an orca who carried her dead calf for 17 days and 1,000 miles off the Pacific Northwest coast. Whale experts pointed to the lack of food as cause for the death, which was a significant blow to the pod of Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Meanwhile, 456 miles from the ocean in Lewiston, Idaho is the most inland seaport on the west coast. The dams on the Columbia and Snake River create a manipulated river system that allows barges to ship wheat and other valuable products to the Pacific and foreign markets. However, the 4 dams on the Snake River that make this navigation system possible create conditions that have contributed to the demise of Chinook salmon and the starvation of Southern Resident Orcas. 

The irony of the sign in Lewiston that thanks passersby for “visiting Idaho’s only seaport” while the dams that create that seaport are driving one of the sea’s most iconic species to extinction cannot be ignored any longer. Elected officials must invest in resources to replace the services of the dams and restore wild salmon, steelhead, and orcas to the Pacific Northwest – honoring Tribal promises and making communities whole. 

Idaho Chinook salmon. BLM photo.

An opportunity to help

After more than six months of work, Washington Senator Patty Murray and Governor Jay Inslee have completed a draft report on replacing the services of the lower Snake River dams. Their report clearly indicates that dam removal is possible and necessary to restore salmon and orcas. Now it’s time to act.

This draft report will be finalized in July, when Sen. Murray and Gov. Inslee will make recommendations for how to move forward. Comment on the draft report today to make the choice clear for elected officials: it’s time for action to remove the dams, replace their services, and restore wild salmon, steelhead, and orcas to abundance.