Reader's Opinion from Saturday's Idaho Statesman:
A new day is dawning for salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. In the span of two weeks last November, the complex chessboard that comprises salmon recovery in Idaho began to look more optimistic for the first time in eight years.
The November elections, pending court verdicts and the recent settlement to remove four lethal dams on the Klamath River in California and Oregon, paint a brighter future for species that have been teetering on the brink of extinction for decades.
However, focusing solely on studies like the one touted in a Reader View published in the Dec. 12 Idaho Statesman is misleading. While the study cited is an important piece of the puzzle, it is only a fragment of a complex issue.
Common sense, to use author Terry Flores' words, suggests that residents of the Pacific Northwest might begin looking forward to a more free-flowing, optimistic era that includes more jobs, restored fisheries, a modernized energy infrastructure that isn't lethal for salmon and a refitted transportation system. Common sense also suggests that many juvenile Idaho salmon that have to survive four dams and reservoirs on the lower Snake River, and then four more on the Columbia River, will die in the process.
While the study's underlying premise that ocean conditions are a major factor in salmon mortality makes sense, a sweeping conclusion that dams make no difference in survival rates is not supported by its authors and is at odds with a long history of independent, peer-reviewed science that says exactly the opposite.
The study, published in October in the open access journal PloS Biology, compares salmon migration and survival in the Fraser and Columbia-Snake river systems. Bert Bowler, a 30-year fisheries biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, maintains the study lacks scientific rigor for drawing such conclusions from two completely different river systems. The tagging mythology used in the study to make the survival comparisons between river systems is precarious at best, Bowler said.
One of the studies' authors also does not negate dams as a major factor.
"Despite the obvious comparison, it would be overly simplistic to say that dams have no impact on smolt survival, because we know they do," said Carl Schreck, a professor of fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State University and the U.S. Geological Survey and an author of the study. "There also may be some additional delayed mortality of Columbia River smolts caused by the stress of passage through the hydrosystem that is not manifested until the fish reach the ocean."
The Fraser/Columbia study has been used in the media and by Flores to argue that a focus on Snake-Columbia dams is misplaced. However, previous studies have established beyond doubt that Columbia-Snake salmon suffer delayed mortality due to dam-related stresses that the fish experience as they pass as many as eight dams on their way to the ocean.
While it is unclear what kind of ocean-related projects could benefit salmon survival rates, it is clear that improving the migration corridor in fresh water will give salmon runs the boost they need most.
With lower Snake dam removal, the critical issues become clear. The key issues are economic, engineering and political. At Idaho Rivers United, we believe that people can find a solution that benefits fish while also helping wheat growers, electricity users and communities. A win-win solution is possible if the new administration and the Northwest's members of Congress seize the new opportunity to create a process in which all stakeholders can sit down to find common ground.
We need all stakeholders involved, including those whose jobs, towns, families and values depend on restored salmon runs.
Greg Stahl is the assistant policy director for Idaho Rivers United.