A Nez Perce elder spreads love for lamprey

by Amanda Peacher

Elmer Crow waits patiently while a crowd of fifth-graders settles on the lawn outside the Morrison Knudson Nature Center in Boise, Idaho. One by one, the students stop squirming as they realize that the Nez Perce elder is watching them, hands folded behind his back. Crow's face is solemn but his eyes are playful. The students stare up at him expectantly.

"Am I supposed to do something?" he says finally, pokerfaced. The kids sit frozen. Crow puts his hands on his waist and grins, wiggling his hips in a little dance. "How about that?" he says, pausing for effect. The students erupt in giggles. Crow laughs, too, his leathery wrinkles deepening.

Then he reaches into a canvas bag and dramatically produces the star of the show: a three-foot-long brown rubber lamprey. The students respond to the snake-like fish with squeals of disgust.

"Mr. Lamprey is actually pretty neat," says Crow, suddenly serious. This misunderstood species is about 200 million years older than the dinosaurs. Like salmon, lampreys hatch in freshwater, migrate to the ocean and then return to their birthplace to spawn. They're a choice meal for whales, salmon and seals. In adulthood they become parasites, suctioning onto ocean mammals or fish and using their raspy teeth and tongues to feed.

Their freeloading habits haven't won them many champions, but they've found one in Elmer Crow. Crow talks about lampreys like they're members of his family, punctuating his stories with deep belly laughs. One moment he's explaining their complex physiological transformation into parasitic feeders; next he's telling a Nez Perce tale about how Lamprey lost his scales and bones into Suckerfish in a stick game.

Years ago, while most tribes and scientists were focused on salmon, Crow helped organize the first formal meeting on lamprey between federal agencies, scientists and the Nez Perce Tribe. Today, he heads up the tribe's lamprey recovery program in Lapwai, Idaho, working with agencies to modify dams and leading efforts to reintroduce lampreys into Idaho streams. The Nez Perce will bring lampreys from other Columbia River tributaries to spawn in streams near Idaho this spring.

It all started one morning in 1972. Crow was fishing along the banks of the South Fork Salmon River when a lone lamprey came into view, dark and lean against the sandy river bottom. He watched as it swam upstream in graceful "s" strokes. When it reached him, he says, it seemed to pause. Crow put down his fishing gear and followed the fish until it disappeared into a deep pool.

That was the only lamprey he saw in 1972. In earlier years, he would have seen hundreds, maybe thousands, in a single fishing season.

"I knew then that we had a problem," Crow says. "He was trying to tell me something."

As a kid, Crow divided his time between relatives from the Cayuse Tribe in Oregon and the Nez Perce in Idaho. Summers were spent fishing in the Columbia Basin. The lamprey's oily meat was a staple in his tribe's diet and important in many ceremonies. "They used to be in our country by the millions," Crow says.

Returns have declined ever since dams went up on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers. Lampreys range from Canada to California, and were once especially abundant in Columbia River tributaries. In 2010, only 15 lampreys returned to the entire Snake River Basin in Idaho. "Each time one of those dams went up, a piece of me went with it," he says.

But convincing others that this uncharismatic fish is worth saving has not been easy. "He's not all cute and fuzzy," says Crow, who regularly corrects misconceptions: that lampreys are an invasive species, that they kill salmon or other hosts, even that they prey on humans like leeches.

Crow notes that such myths make it even harder to protect the species -- an especially urgent task these days, with so few remaining. Lampreys suffer from the impact of dams as much as salmon do, maybe more. Juveniles get stuck in dams and reservoirs on the way downstream, and adults can't climb fish ladders designed for salmon. In fast water, the ladders' angular corners make it nearly impossible for lamprey to suction their way upstream.

Although most Columbia River salmon species were designated as threatened or endangered in the 1990s, Pacific lampreys are still not protected, despite an effort by environmental groups to get them listed in 2003.

"How many times have I heard, 'Well, you don't understand'?" says Crow. "And no, I don't understand. (Federal agencies) have millions of dollars to work with, but they don't want to touch the dams."

Crow worries that his grandkids will never get to experience fishing for lamprey and salmon like he did. "The smell of the river, the roar of the rapids ... the feeling of getting soaking wet without even getting into the river. How do you explain all that?" Crow says.

If he can inspire a little reverence for the unlovely lamprey, perhaps he won't have to. "How old is salmon?" Crow asks the fifth-graders. "10,000 years. How old is lamprey? 450 million years." He lets this sink in for a moment. "Now, how old is human? We're still in diapers. We need to take care of our elders."

© High Country News