McCALL, Idaho - Another 1,000 miles, another month gone by. As relentless as the wild salmon he hopes to save, Charles Ray climbs into his weathered brown truck and each month travels about the same distance the fish must navigate between the Pacific Ocean and their spawning grounds in central Idaho. Many of his work days begin at 4 a.m. and end in a sleeping bag somewhere on the road.
"What keeps me going is rage," says the
lanky 42-year-old former logger and electrician, a native
Tennessean who first came to Idaho in 1976 to work for the U.S.
Forest Service. "I'm not willing to stand along the Salmon River 10
years from now and explain to my kids why there are no salmon in
the Salmon River."
For the past three years, Ray
has spearheaded the Wild Salmon Project for Idaho Rivers United, a
nonprofit organization that stimulates grass-roots attention on
state and federal water policy issues.
were declared extinct in 1986. Ray focuses his efforts on
protecting steelhead, and Idaho's four remaining strains of salmon:
sockeye, on the federal endangered species list since 1991, and
spring, summer and fall chinook, which were listed as threatened in
1991 and uplisted to endangered this year. These sea-going
freshwater fish, known to travel as far as Japan, are dying from
threats in their own backyard waters.
two-lane journeys across Idaho, often accompanied by his
11-year-old son Alex, Ray speaks about salmon with anyone who will
listen: potato and sugar beet farmers in Twin Falls, party-goers in
wealthy Ketchum, fly-fishers on eastern Idaho's Upper Snake River,
town groups in Challis, elementary schoolers in Boise. He struggles
to rout modern salmon myths that he's heard so often he can recite
by heart: "It's too late to save them. It'll cost too much to save
them, we can't afford it. They've been driven to extinction from
over-fishing by the Indians, commercial fishermen, or Asian
drift-net fishermen. We don't know what to do to save them."
Fifty years ago, before the construction of
eight dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers, 10 million to 16
million wild salmon and steelhead entered the mouth of the Columbia
to spawn, according to the Northwest Power Planning Council.
About half were headed to Idaho. Some 970 miles
from the Pacific, crimson tides of 10,000 sockeye returned to their
namesake Redfish Lake in the Stanley Basin north of Sun Valley. The
runs provided the state with an important sport fishery, embodied
Native American life and religion, and served as an essential link
in the food chain for other wildlife.
because of declining salmon populations, the state has not had a
general statewide sport-fishing season for salmon since 1978. The
tribal fishery is severely restricted. Many birds and mammals have
lost an important food source. In 1994, fewer than 4,000 spring and
summer chinook returned to Idaho. About a third of those were wild
At Redfish Lake, candlelight vigils are
held each year for the few sockeye who survive the journey home. Of
seven Idaho lakes (five in the Stanley Basin) that once bore
sockeye, only Redfish still sustains an annual run of salmon. In
1992, one sockeye returned to Redfish Lake; in 1993, eight; in
(Seventeen adults reared in captivity
were put back in Redfish Lake at the vigil this year. And the
captive breeding program has produced 12,000 young sockeye that
will migrate to the ocean next spring.)
it "an environmental, cultural and economic tragedy': habitat
degradation, water pollution, poorly managed fish harvests,
unscreened irrigation diversions and
"Nearly four years after the species was
listed under the Endangered Species Act, we have the lowest run in
history," he says in disgust.
Many of the myths
Ray battles are nurtured by the federal Bonneville Power
Administration (BPA), which operates the dams, and downstream
industries, including aluminum companies, investor-owned utilities,
and barge shipping companies. Ray says they are "trying to squeeze
every nickel of revenue out of the river system at the expense of
Despite public perception and the
near-extinct runs, he believes the fish can be
"I know the fish can come back. Science
and numbers tell me that, but the flame is flickering. Either we
can kindle that flame or the hydropower dams will snuff it out.
This is a critical year," he says. "The 1995 migration season is
going to be the last until at least the turn of the century that we
have a decent number of juvenile fish leaving Idaho."
Unlike other endangered and threatened species
that may only deliver two offspring a year, however, the salmon has
an incredible fertility rate, laying some 4,000 eggs at a time.
"All we have to do is get out of their way. The salmon will do the
In a theater in Ketchum, Ray stands in
the dark before a projector with his tray of slides. In the
audience sit about 50 local residents: members of Idaho Rivers
United, concerned citizens and the curious. Ray is talking salmon
as he does week after week.
"Here's what a dam
looks like to a juvenile salmon (or smolt) heading downstream."
With eight clicks of the slide tray, aerial views appear of dams
and the reservoirs behind them. Ray explains how critical spring
runoffs are now harnessed in 350 miles of reservoirs and dams. For
the migrating fish, the death rate is high. Some 80 percent of
juveniles perish before reaching the ocean, and 40 percent of
returning adults die as they attempt to cross the
Before the dams clogged the rivers, smolts
could expect to reach the Pacific in seven to 10 days, riding the
high-water spring runoff. Explains Ray, "To have a healthy adult
population we must first get the juveniles downstream." The longer
it takes to reach the ocean, the fewer smolts make
Referring to the reservoirs as "pools of
death," Ray explains to the group in Ketchum how the smolts face
delays in migration. Warmer water, pooled in the still reservoirs,
leave them more vulnerable to disease and predators. They risk
winding up in the turbines as they seek the greatest water flow.
Additionally, these time lags disrupt a smolt's physiological
transformation from freshwater to saltwater
In a failed attempt to remedy the problem,
BPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the dams, began
capturing and barging smolts around the dams in 1968. Salmon and
steelhead continued to decline.
believes the best blueprint to save the fish is Gov. Cecil Andrus'
Idaho Plan, designed by a team of Northwest biologists and
hydrologists. The plan calls for changes in harvest, hatcheries and
habitat, and most importantly, a seasonal release from lower Snake
River reservoirs, where numbers of juvenile salmon die en route to
the sea. From mid-April to mid-June, such drawdowns would increase
river velocity and flush smolts through the runs more
Ray estimates that modifying the dams
would increase consumer electric bills from 1 percent to 3
"We have to make a choice," Ray says.
"We must choose to do all we can to save these fish, to recover
them, because if we don't make that choice, the choice will be made
for us: extinction."
Recently, a congressional
task force headed by Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said the BPA wastes
millions of dollars on subsidies and a failed nuclear power program
- and ignores an urgent need for action to save
The House Natural Resources task force
said BPA should divest itself of fish and wildlife functions,
passing them to tribal and state fish and wildlife
Ray is delighted that "someone in
Congress finally had the courage to expose BPA's shortcomings." As
one of the many salmon advocates who gave DeFazio a sense of the
salmon crisis at hearings around the Northwest last October, he
felt considerable satisfaction.
In Ray's McCall
office, where the walls are adorned with salmon posters, fishing
rods and a bumper sticker that reads WILD SEX FOR WILD FISH, FREE
THE SOCKEYE, son Alex sits at a desk making a list of what comes to
mind when he thinks of salmon.
In pencil, he
writes, "Jumping up waterfalls. Big. Wishing there were enough to
fish for them." When asked what about salmon is most important, he
replies shyly, "Keeping them alive."
The writer is lives in
Boise, Idaho, and contributes to various national
For more information contact Wendy
Wilson at Idaho Rivers United, P.O. Box 633, Boise, ID 83702