The Columbia-Snake river system was one of the world’s most productive salmon fisheries. More than 5,000 miles of high-elevation, cold-water habitat in the Snake River basin offer the best opportunity for restoring abundance. Federal and State fisheries biologists not employed by Bonneville Power, the Army Corps of Engineers, or otherwise censored, as well as a series of Federal judges, have repeatedly and unequivocally affirmed this potential over the last 20 years:
1994 Judge Malcolm Marsh strikes down Federal agencies' endangered salmon recovery plan as arbitrary and capricious, stating "...the process is seriously, significantly, flawed because it is too heavily geared towards a status quo that has allowed all forms of river activity to proceed in a deficit situation – that is, relatively small steps, minor improvements and adjustments – when the situation literally cries out for a major overhaul. Instead of looking for what can be done to protect the species from jeopardy, NMFS [National Marine Fisheries Service] and the action agencies have narrowly focussed their attention on what the establishment is capable of handling with minimal disruption.”
1996 "Return to the River" report by the Independent Scientific Group concluded that a focus on technological solutions “should be phased out in lieu of a return to more normative river conditions... Unfortunately, the restoration program based on the machine metaphor has failed to curtail the decline of salmonid fishes. Moreover, it may be actively interfering with conservation efforts…dependence on hatcheries for production [has] led to a significant reduction in salmon diversity, potentially eliminating those salmon that have adapted to the greatest variety of ocean conditions."
1998 Plan for Analyzing and Testing Hypothesis (PATH) assessment predicted that habitat restoration alone could not recover salmon and steelhead in the Snake River basin, changes in predation did not change the rank of management options, transportation would not address impacts of the hydro system, and additional future reductions in harvest were unlikely to do more than avoid extinction... but removal of the 4 lower Snake River dams offered an 80% chance of recovering Snake River spring/summer Chinook and a 100% chance of recovering fall Chinook.
1999 American Fisheries Society Western Division resolution identifies the lower Snake River dams as a threat to the continued existence of remaining Snake River salmon populations.
1999 Idaho Fish & Game Research Biologists author a perspective in fisheries management "Recovery efforts to date have been based on a mechanistic foundation (i.e., based on engineering and technology) and have failed to achieve recovery... Any genuine attempt to recover these fish must be associated with restoring some level of pre-dam ecosystem function to the lower Snake and/or Columbia rivers by providing a more natural, free-flowing river."
1999 Concerned Scientists: more than 200 scientists send a letter to President Clinton saying, in part "Due to habitat loss resulting from the construction of impassable dams, the Snake River basin now contains 70 percent of the potential production for spring/summer chinook salmon and summer steelhead in the entire Columbia basin... The weight of scientific evidence clearly shows that wild Snake River salmon and steelhead runs cannot be recovered under existing river conditions. Enough time remains to restore them, but only if the failed practices of the past are abandoned and we move quickly to restore the normative river conditions under which these fish evolved… Biologically, the choice of how to best recover these fish is clear, and the consequences of maintaining the status quo are all but certain."
Jim Norton photo
2000 National Marine Fisheries Service Biological Opinion (Section 9.1.7) stated that "...breaching the four lower Snake River dams would provide more certainty of long-term survival and recovery than would other measures."
2001 Meta-Analysis for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of previous Federal assessments (PATH, National Marine Fisheries Service Cumulative Risk Initiative, others) synthesized "although the results vary somewhat among approaches, all available science appears to suggest that dam breach has the greatest biological potential for recovering Snake River salmon and steelhead."
2004 American Fisheries Society Western Division review of the latest action agencies' Biological Opinion stated that in contrast to uncertain benefits from other recovery measures “the benefits to Snake River stock survival and recovery would be assured with the removal of the lower four dams on that system.”
2010 American Fisheries Society Western Division evaluated an Adaptive Management Implementation Plan of yet another invalidated BiOp, and affirmed that restoration of the lower Snake River has the highest likelihood of recovering endangered salmon and steelhead.
2011 Judge James Redden rejected another federal recovery plan overly reliant on uncertain measures and ordered a new biological opinion that "considers whether more aggressive action, such as dam removal and/or additional flow augmentation and reservoir modifications are necessary to avoid jeopardy... As a practical matter, it may be difficult for Federal Defendants to develop a long-term biological opinion that relies only on mitigation measures..."
2011 American Fisheries Society Western Division resolution again identifies the lower Snake River dams as critically limiting variable in Snake River salmon recovery and calls for breaching, stating: “based on the best scientific information available, it is the position of the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society that the four lower Snake River dams and reservoirs are a significant threat to the continued existence of remaining Snake River salmon, steelhead, Pacific lamprey, and white sturgeon; and if society-at-large wishes to restore Snake River salmon, steelhead, Pacific lamprey, and white sturgeon to sustainable, fishable levels, then a significant portion of the lower Snake River must be returned to a free-flowing condition by breaching the four lower Snake River dams.”
2016 Judge Michael Simon, in a ruling invalidating the federal recovery plan for a fifth time, faulted agencies for again failing to address the effects of dams. “Despite billions of dollars spent on these efforts, the listed species continue to be in a perilous state... The [Federal Columbia River Power System] remains a system that ‘cries out’ for a new approach.”
2018 Concerned Scientists: more than 30 salmon scientists from the Pacific Northwest sent a letter to Governor Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force recommending “the most effective measure we know of to permanently increase the sustained abundance of Chinook salmon from the Snake and Columbia Rivers: removing the four federal dams on the lower Snake River and restoring the ecological health of that river corridor. The Snake River basin now supports 70% of the habitat available for recovery of spring/summer Chinoook and steelhead trout in the entire Columbia River watershed…Nonetheless, at that time (and since) the federal agencies involved in operating these dams have chosen to take other approaches to restoring Columbia and Snake River salmon, approaches that consistently have been rejected by the courts as legally inadequate. We too believe these past efforts demonstrate that the focus on nursery habitat restoration and other measures short of dam removal cannot deliver sufficient survival benefits for salmon and steelhead, and that Lower Snake dam removal remains the most effective and available action to increase Snake River salmon abundance in the long-term.”
2018 Concerned Scientists, in a letter to the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, six conservation biologists stipulated that increasing Chinook abundance from the Columbia-Snake system required "an immediate increase in spill levels at the federal dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers to 125% total dissolved gas and permanently restoring the Snake River by removing the lower Snake River dams."
2018 Fish Passage Center, in a written response to questions from the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, addressing the futility of alternatives to restoring normative flow conditions, stated “it is clear that there are only two options left for the region, increase spill to the 125% gas cap and/ or remove the four lower Snake River dams.”
2019 Concerned Scientists: more than 50 fisheries and natural resource scientists sent a letter to Northwest policymakers, including the Governors of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, asserting that lower Snake River dam removal is the only way to keep the migratory corridor viable in a warming world. Citing modeling from the Environmental Protection Agency and referencing the summer of 2015 when 96% of returning Snake River sockeye died in lethally warm temperatures, the letter cautions that "extreme conditions faced by migrating adult salmon will become more frequent...the option of breaching lower Snake River dams, combined with existing or modified cold water releases, has enormous potential to alleviate the very serious problem of elevated summer temperatures...no other action or actions can significantly lower summer water temperatures in the lower Snake River on a long-term basis, while also providing additional cooling in the lower Columbia."
Viewed in this context, decisions to focus on measures other than removal of the Lower Snake River Dams are political and economic, not ecological.
The hatchery-based mitigation program, in which linear mass-production is a surrogate for regenerative fecundity, is a convenient fiction designed to avoid effective recovery action and its challenge to existing literal and figurative power structures. Salmon are thus collateral damage to both development and our approach to their recovery. Current debates over policy – whether or not to increase hatchery production, kill sea lions, release water through dams, transport juveniles in barges and trucks, close fishing seasons – are iterations on management regimes designed to narrowly escape thresholds of endangerment. They have nothing to do with restoring self-sustaining abundance.
A century of experimentation with creative, expensive, and ultimately ineffective alternatives to salmon swimming up and downstream has proven there is no way to subordinate the integrity of the system and retain its pieces. Removing salmon from the river ensures the collapse of both. Our best hope for restoring abundance remains the one strategy we haven’t tried but that was clearly articulated over twenty years ago, when the Independent Scientific Group reported to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, in Return to the River:
"We recognize that what we are proposing is an ecosystem recovery that, if we are successful,will be unmatched anywhere in the world…Salmon are remarkably resilient and productive in healthy habitat. If the focus of our management actions returns to the river, so that natural processes and habitat are restored, the salmon also are likely to return to the river."