LEWISTON, Idaho — The Northwest’s declining salmon runs have spurred marathon legal battles and inspired billions in spending to save the iconic species.
But Idaho’s coho salmon were never listed as endangered before they went extinct in 1987. Very few people noticed when the fish were gone.
The Nez Perce Tribe noticed. And thanks to its extraordinary efforts, coho are once again returning by the thousands to Idaho waters.
Michael Bisbee is the Nez Perce Tribe’s coho program manager. He does much of his work along the banks of the Lapwai Creek, a tributary of the Clearwater River in North Idaho in the mountains east of Lewiston.
He describes the coho’s comeback by reciting the number of fish to return from the Pacific Ocean all the way past the Lower Granite Dam, the eighth and final big dam salmon from the Clearwater Basin must get past as they migrate home up the Columbia and lower Snake rivers:
“Last year in 2011 we had a total of a little greater than 5,000 adults over Lower Granite. So within 15-years we went from zero adults over Lower Granite to 5,000.”
So what did it take to get those 5,000 coho to return to Idaho waters? The answer involves smuggled salmon eggs, armed guards, and a tribe’s leap of faith that fish with the genetic coding to migrate a short distance from the mouth of the Columbia could produce progeny hardy enough to adapt to spawning grounds upriver 500 miles and 1,000 vertical feet.
For most of the 20th century, dams went up along the Columbia, Lower Snake and Clearwater rivers, interfering with salmon passage. The loss of habitat, and heavy commercial fishing in the lower reaches of the Columbia, all conspired to doom Idaho’s coho.
In the final years before the coho reached their demise in these parts, most of the money spent saving the species from extinction concentrated on those more prized as sport fish — like chinook and steelhead.
Salmon have been reintroduced throughout the Pacific Northwest; a similar coho program is being done out by Washington’s Yakama Nation Tribe. But returning coho salmon to Idaho’s Clearwater Basin has been one of the most daunting of challenges for the region’s fish revivalists.
Earlier attempts to bring back Idaho’s coho had failed. The fish had been extinct nearly a decade when the Nez Perce Tribe saw one last chance.
In the mid-1990s, The Nez Perce’s Penney recalls, the tribe got an opportunity to get about a half million coho eggs from hatcheries along the lower Columbia River.
Today, Idaho Fish and Game and the Nez Perce Tribe consider themselves good partners in managing the state’s coho. But in 1995, the state agency made it more difficult than the tribe could have imagined to bring the eggs to Idaho. Fish and Game refused to issue a transport permit allowing the coho eggs to cross the state border.
An Idaho Fish and Game spokesman says the department couldn’t allow the eggs from outside the state before the tribe submitted a coho management plan for approval by state and federal agencies.
That would have taken years. If the tribe missed this chance, there was no promise more eggs would be available. Plus, these eggs were fragile and had to be transported quickly.
Tribal leaders decided to move the eggs without a transport permit. Penney was one of those involved. “So we had one of our enforcement officers travel with us in uniform and armed — ready for a confrontation — but nothing ever happened,” he recalled.
Here’s where the science behind reintroducing coho to Idaho got tricky. These eggs came from salmon that historically traveled no more than 150-miles upriver from the ocean, never exceeding a few dozen feet above sea level.
Introducing them to Idaho’s Clearwater Basin called for these lower Columbia eggs to hatch salmon with the genetic traits required to endure a 1,000-mile down-and-back river journey that would take them up nearly 1,0000 vertical feet to reach Idaho’s mountain streams.
So the tribe decided early on to be selective about its hatchery program. And it didn’t want hatchery-raised salmon to be a detriment to other wild salmon and steelhead.
Penney says his tribe isn’t trying to grow “cookie-cutter fish” in large numbers. “What we are trying to do,” says Penney “is release fish that are at the natural size of the natural fish that are out here in the rivers and the tributaries. So they are not outcompeting their brothers and sister and cousins that are already out there.”
The Nez Perce have followed these principles for nearly two decades. Recently the tribe reached an important milestone: so many coho have returned in the past five years the tribe no longer needs to import lower Columbia stock.
“We release only progeny that came from adults returning to the Clearwater River,” says Bisbee, the tribal coho manager. “I mean, we are really close to having only a localized Clearwater stock.”
So the tribe has a coho species that passed a critical first step. But hatchery critics say there is still a long way to go.
Bert Bowler is the president of Salmon Solutions based in Boise. He used to be a fish biologist with Idaho Fish and Game based in Lewiston, not far from Lapwai Creek, one of the streams where coho now spawn. Bowler says the tribe still has to prove these fish can be self sufficient, without a supplemental hatchery program.
“The Nez Perce Tribe is working on making more of a hatchery program that tries to rear fish in the program, in the hatcheries that’s more similar to the wild,” Bowler says. “But that’s pretty difficult to do.”
The Nez Perce tribe and Idaho Fish and Game are in the midst of a supplemental hatchery study. Bowler says that means examining the data from ten years of supplemental hatchery work and then comparing it to the results of ten years without such an effort. Afterward, biologists can determine if hatcheries are affecting the salmon’s ability to make it on their own in the wild.
Meanwhile, Nez Perce elder Charles Axtell has his own way of assessing the success of his tribe’s work to bring coho salmon back to Idaho waters. And by his measure, there is no doubt that the work is paying off.
“You see a lot of happy faces,” Axtell says. “They are getting their humor back you know, that’s the way the Nez Perce has got good humor. You hear laughing especially when they eat, you hear that laughter continuously and that’s really good to me and good to hear.”
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