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. 

Idaho Chinook salmon. BLM 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.

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. Just last year, a new female calf was reported in the J pod, bringing the Southern Resident’s population back up to 75 individuals. Now, reports put the population at 73 individuals.

Lower Granite Dam. ACE/Noe Gonzalez photo.

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 have been leading the calls for restoration of salmon and orcas across the region. W’tot lhem, (Jay Julius) former Chairman of the Lummi Nation and the Founder and President of Se’Se’Le recently wrote about how salmon, orca, and the Lummi Nation are being managed to extinction

“State and federal agencies will tell us how they are doing their best to manage the salmon. But, at least in our view, what’s happening is that the Lummi Nation is being managed to extinction—just like the salmon and the Southern Resident killer whales. If that sounds harsh, it is. Because the hard reality is that ecocide leads to genocide. Our salmon and orca relatives are being dishonored, along with the rights and promises made by the settler government to the Salmon Nations of the Xw’ullemy just six generations ago.”

This spring, youth from across the Northwest traveled to DC together to urge federal leaders to breach the four lower Snake River dams. The Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) Youth Council, Youth Salmon Protectors, and Washington Youth Ocean and River Conservation Alliance (WYORCA) met with representatives from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and the Administration to share why this issue is important to them. Their calls for action were united and focused on climate, justice and investing in their future.

Representatives from Idaho Conservation League (ICL), Youth Salmon Protectors (YSP), the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla (CTUIR) Youth Council, and Washington Youth Ocean and River Conservation Alliance (WYORCA) met for the first time in Washington D.C. in April 2023 to advocate for salmon, orcas, and Tribal justice.

Meanwhile, back in Idaho and 456 miles from the ocean is the most inland seaport on the west coast in Lewiston, Idaho. 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 four 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.

Juvenile Chinook salmon. USFWS/Ryan Hagerty photo.

An opportunity to tell federal leaders it’s time for change 

Last month, the Council on Environmental Quality launched a public comment period to gather feedback on Columbia River salmon and other native fish restoration. This is your opportunity to share with the Biden Administration why a free-flowing lower Snake River is vital for salmon, for orcas, and for the Northwest. Submit a comment today urging our leaders to replace the services provided by the four lower Snake River dams and create a comprehensive basin-wide solution that includes dam breaching.