Fish advocates, however, believe saving wild salmon will require still more accountability. And for the first time in almost 20 years, they appear to have a receptive ear in the White House. They are calling on the administration to replace the director of BPA and the regional director of NOAA, and to either quit silencing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologists or appoint a new regional director in Oregon. Conservation groups and outdoor companies also are calling for Obama to task a salmon director from the Council on Environmental Quality to deal with West Coast salmon problems, from vanishing runs in California to the mine threatening Alaska's Bristol Bay fishery. Finally, salmon advocates want the administration to bring everyone with a stake in the Columbia/Snake crisis to the table and help them craft a science-based settlement that genuinely helps wild fish and Northwest communities.
But time is running out.
"Wild fish are in a serious and depleted state and, with the influence of climate change, many stocks are doomed," says Don Chapman, a well-regarded fisheries scientist and former energy-industry consultant who once opposed dam removal. Scientists estimate that global warming will cause the region to lose 40 percent of its wild salmon and steelhead populations over the next 60 years, especially the fish spawning in the lower Columbia Basin. "I've become a dam-breaching advocate over the last five years because I see the handwriting on the wall," Chapman says. Because of its elevation and pristine condition, "Idaho has the habitat that will mitigate" for warmer river temperatures, decreased snow pack and other global warming factors that will erode salmon habitat. And because this is the best remaining habitat in the Columbia Basin, salmon runs could increase dramatically -- if the lower Snake dams were removed.
"What you face now is inertia caused by people saying, ‘Look at the good runs.' These are composed primarily of hatchery fish -- hatchery fish are not part of recovery," Chapman adds. "This is about the future. We're talking about irreplaceable genetic material in these wild stocks."
At the end of the all-day court hearing, Judge Redden recommended the federal agencies consider amending the biological opinion to include breaching the four lower Snake dams as a last resort. If salmon aren't recovering five to seven years from now, "I don't think the answer can be, ‘Let's go do some more habitat work,' " Redden said. "By then, I think, the Corps should have their plan (for Snake River dam removal) ready to go." While he gave no timeline for ruling, he subsequently re-enforced the need for the dam removal option in a closed-door meeting with the federal agencies' attorneys. And many say Redden's keen judgment is the main reason the fish still have a chance.
After reflecting on his day in Judge Redden's court, Scott Van Bergen is optimistic about the future of Columbia and Snake wild salmon. "I think eventually there's going to be some sort of compromise reached," the future biologist says. "My feeling is we're going to start moving away from hydropower -- and dams will become obsolete and be removed or bypassed. Salmon are a big economic staple, whether it's for business or tourism. (And) when you lose the salmon, you lose the tie to your heritage."
Freelance writer and author Ken Olsen covers the West from Oregon.