Idaho Gov. Brad Little deserved every accolade he got for convening a task force to deal with Idaho’s imperiled salmon runs.

He touched the right bases. Virtually every interest group involved — irrigators, water lawyers, utilities, shippers, recreationists, agriculture, Indian tribes, and conservationists — were represented.

He brought in new eyes.

And his timing was spot on. Fish numbers are declining. Restricted seasons are crimping fishing community economies. No longer the low-cost producer, Bonneville Power Administration is running out of the resources to pay for fish mitigation.

And the political winds are shifting. Even breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River seems to be on the table.

In Idaho, Republican Congressman Mike Simpson — who successfully steered to passage a Boulder-White Clouds wilderness package — has taken up saving his state’s salmon stocks as his next mission.

In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee has launched a $750,000 study to look at how to mitigate farmers and others if the dams are breached in order to improve salmon runs, thereby saving the starving Puget Sound orcas.

Then, Little confused everybody.

“I remain unconvinced at this time that breaching the dams will recover salmon in Idaho,” Little said. “In order to keep this diverse group of stakeholders (together), we will put polarizing issues aside and focus on pragmatic, achievable solutions.”

Pragmatic and achievable?

What pragmatic and achievable idea hasn’t already been tried?

Hatcheries?

Check.

Habitat restoration?

Check.

Harvest restrictions?

Check.

Why assemble a group that includes at least a few people who sincerely believe dam breaching ought to be considered — and then leave them hanging?

How long before some of those advocates walk away from the table? What good will that do?

And while Simpson never mentioned the phrase “dam breaching” during his April 23 remarks at the Andrus Center’s “Energy, Salmon, Agriculture, and Community: Can We Come Together” conference, he prioritized fish recovery.

“I’m getting tired of Idaho paying the costs of those dams and getting none of the benefits,” he said.

But if Simpson is going to get anywhere, he needs allies within his own congressional delegation and throughout the region. How does a governor who tells his task force to “put polarizing issues” aside help in that effort?

How does a task force that sticks to “pragmatic, achievable solutions” not risk leaving Idaho in the dust while others work on a strategy to rescue the fish?

Maybe the governor’s position is not as fixed as it seems. After all, he did tell the same Andrus conference that breaching was a “high hurdle” for him — which may imply it’s not insurmountable. And his admonition to the salmon task force was predicated by the phrase “at this time.”

Read between the lines — as some have — and you may recognize a governor who needs some political cover with the base of his own party. After all, this is the same governor who shortly after taking office acknowledged the “climate is changing, there’s no question about that.”

Perhaps he wants to be persuaded by his task force members.

If so, why say anything? Why not simply charge his task force members with reviewing the issues and all the options before getting back to him in 10 or 12 months?

Some believe the governor got around to saying just that.

For instance, Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Justin Hayes pressed Little on the point:

“I want to honestly say you’ve done a disservice to (the work group) already by putting sideboards up by saying certain things were too polarizing to talk about or consider if the science says we need to go there,” Hayes said.

Little said he’d been misunderstood.

“The issue is if you find one issue and then spend all your time talking about it, then you don’t go to any other issue,” he said. “If you just focus on that and you don’t look at all the options around, you’re not going to get anywhere. If it’s all going to be about dam breaching, I don’t believe we’re going to get there.”

Talk about creating ambiguity when leadership demands clarity.

Is dam breaching off the table?

Is the governor looking for political cover?

Was he truly misinterpreted?

Little created this conundrum. Only he can resolve it.

So tell us, governor: What’s your motivation? Biology leavened by a touch of Idaho collaborative politics? Or politics as usual in Idaho — without science at all? — M.T.

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