The four lower Snake River dams must be breached to recover the waterway’s salmon and steelhead.
That was one of the messages that Richard Scully, a retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist, shared Monday with the Lewiston City Council.
Scully was one of two speakers representing Citizens for the Recovery of Idaho’s Salmon and Steelhead who made a formal presentation asking the council to refrain from endorsing a resolution to preserve the dams.
More than half a dozen citizens who share the view of Scully’s group spoke during a public comment period, where one person spoke in favor of maintaining the dams.
Advocates for the dams spoke at a meeting earlier this month.
The council took no action Monday, but councilors asked questions after the presentations.
In the 1950s and 1960s, wild salmon and steelhead runs provided healthy tribal and sport fisheries that left sufficient numbers to spawn in the Clearwater, Salmon, Grande Ronde and Imnaha rivers, Scully said.
But since the four lower Snake River dams were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, wild fish runs have plummeted, leaving all Snake River salmon and steelhead listed as endangered or threatened, he said.
“We rarely see run sizes coming even close to what would be necessary to remove these fish from the endangered species list,” Scully said.
The number of wild fish protected by the Endangered Species Act continue to diminish even though they are not harvested, he said, pointing to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River as an example.
No sport fishing has occurred on that waterway for decades and its spawning and rearing habitat are near pristine.
Yet, Scully said, the 20,000 wild spring chinook spawning beds that were there as recently as the 1960s have dwindled and now rarely reach 500.
The reason is because in most years, the smolt-to-adult return ratio is less than 1% for salmon and less than 2% for steelhead, he said.
“Based on extensive peer-reviewed fisheries studies, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council has determined that an average of 4% percent of smolts that leave Idaho must return as adults in order for these runs to recover,” Scully said. “There must be at least 2% return just to maintain what runs remain. Run returns of less than 1% lead to extinction.”
Keith Carlson, a former Idaho Fish and Game commissioner, reminded the council that the decision about what will happen could be determined in forums where the state of Idaho and the city of Lewiston have no representation.
One of them is in federal court where, in late October, federal Judge Michael Simon, of Portland, Ore., gave breaching advocates and the Biden administration a nine-month window to craft a possible end to 20 years of salmon and dams litigation on the Snake River.
Councilor Luke Blount said his blood pressure “maxed out” probably twice during the presentation.
“What are you going to tell the farmers is my big, big question?” he said. “What are you going to tell all the boaters that recreate and water ski?”
A 30-cent-per-bushel subsidy that maintains the locks and barging channel would be shifted to rail and there would still be plenty of swimming and water skiing, Scully said.
“I would be willing to have this conversation once the seals and sea lions are managed well on the fish ladders,” Blount said.
The fish on the John Day, Yakima and Deschutes rivers below the four lower Snake River dams are doing fine, Scully replied.
“They’re all having the same predators,” he said. “It’s just that the fish that come all the way up here past four more dams, they don’t survive as well.”
Councilor Hannah Liedke wondered about a loss of fish when the breaching happens, remembering a test draw down in the early 1990s.
Scully responded saying the change would be timed to occur when there wouldn’t be a lot of salmon and steelhead in the river. The result would be 140 miles of restored spawning and rearing areas “from now until forever,” he said.
“In the short term, there’s going to be some disruption,” Scully said. “But in the long term, it’s going to be very beneficial for the fish.”
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