A small group of fishing outfitters and guides is calling on three-quarters of the Idaho congressional delegation to become more engaged in efforts to recover the iconic fish that return to the Snake River and its tributaries.
The group asked Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo and Rep. Russ Fulcher to join Rep. Mike Simpson’s effort to come up with a new salmon recovery strategy that also reforms the financially struggling Bonneville Power Administration.
Outfitters Toby Wyatt, Jason Schultz, Kyle Jones and Adam Hocking, along with guides Travis Wendt and Tom Bullock, signed the piece.
They write that fish recovery efforts over the past two decades have failed and a new plan expected to be finalized next week appears to be following the same unsuccessful blueprint.
“It has never been clearer that federal agencies like the Bonneville Power Administration and Army Corps of Engineers can’t prevent the extinction of our fish, and our industry along with it. We need a bigger solution, which will only happen with leadership from those privileged enough to be our elected representatives. They cannot continue to sit by quietly as we lose our clients and consider closing our businesses,” they wrote.
All of them work on the Clearwater, Snake and Salmon rivers and have watched salmon and steelhead runs that have been federally protected for decades tank over the last few years. Last fall, the return of B-run steelhead was so low that fishing was shut down on the Clearwater River. Recent spring chinook seasons have been shuttered early on the Clearwater and other rivers as well. Steelhead returns are expected to improve slightly this fall but still lag far behind 10-year averages.
The outfitters have had to shift their focus to other species like bass, sturgeon and walleye to make ends meet. They wrote that a draft of the Corps’s environmental impact statement looking at balancing operation of dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers with fish all but ignores the economic contribution of their industry.
It does, however, say that removing the four lower Snake River dams would be the best way to recover the fish listed as threatened and endangered under the Endangered Species Act. But the government chose to focus on a plan that leaves the dams in place and instead calls for spilling water over them to help speed juvenile fish downstream.
Simpson, who hasn’t formally endorsed breaching, has played footsie with it for more than a year. The Republican representing Idaho’s Second Congressional District shocked many political observers last year when he declared his commitment to see Idaho’s fish runs recovered and framed possible solutions around a future with a free-flowing Snake River. He roughly outlined his idea for a grand plan that would reorganize the Bonneville Power Administration and also include mitigation to help farmers harmed by breaching and ways to shore up power supplies.
Since then, Simpson and his chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, have been working behind the scenes on the plan and talking to stakeholders. They haven’t publicly outlined the details of their idea.
The rest of the Congressional delegation seems content to talk about the importance of salmon and steelhead but does little to forge a new path. In a statement sent to the Tribune, Risch’s spokeswoman Marty Cozza said the Senator supports “collaborative action at the state and federal level to resolve these challenges so long as potential solutions do not include dam breaching.”
Crapo’s spokesman Lindsay Nothern said his boss also supports collaboration and consensus. Rep. Russ Fulcher said he frequently communicates with other members of the delegation about salmon recovery.
“I appreciate the need for a stronger salmon and steelhead fishery in Idaho, and believe this can be accomplished without sacrificing the carbon-free hydroelectric power system that makes up the largest source of electrical generation in our state and region,” he said.
Both Fulcher and Risch are up for reelection this fall and face opponents who say they are eager to see more dramatic actions taken.
Democrat Paulette Jordan is vying to take Risch’s Senate seat. She faulted him for staying the course on failed fish recovery strategies and said restoring the runs would bring economic opportunity to the state, open the door to more alternative energy development and honor tribal treaty rights.
“Even the most conservative estimates tell us that restoring salmon and steelhead runs could provide hundreds of millions of dollars of annual economic benefit across Idaho. As they stand, the four dams on the lower Snake River put valuable fish — and the jobs and communities that depend on them — at risk.”
Rudy Soto, a Democrat from Nampa challenging Fulcher, said he supports Simpson’s efforts but would be even more aggressive if elected.
“The four Lower Snake River Dams are wreaking havoc on our salmon and steelhead trout. These vital marine species are the cornerstones of our environment, indigenous and local communities, and our economy. We need leadership in Congress who will take a stand for all Idahoans by creating solutions to protect our heritage, livelihoods and precious natural resources. I fully support the coalition of anglers and business owners fighting for our fish and our rivers.”
The op-ed authors didn’t endorse breaching. In interviews, they said members of Congress simply need to do more to help save the fish.
Jason Schultz, owner of Hells Canyon Sport Fishing and vice president of the Clearwater Chapter of the Idaho River Community Alliance, traveled to Washington, D.C., this spring to advocate for the fish and said a new approach is desperately needed.
“If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, and nothing is getting better, eventually someone is going to have to come up with some outside-the-box thinking and try some new stuff,” he said.
Kyle Jones, of Jones Sport Fishing, at Lewiston, said dam breaching needs to be discussed openly as a possible solution.
“I just want to be able to have those conversations with people: ‘If dams were to come out, what would you guys need for your operations to remain whole?’,” he said.
The op-ed can be viewed at https://bit.ly/3eTGyzw.
Barker may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.