How not to save salmon

by Ted Williams

For centuries, killing predators was to fish and wildlife management what leeches were to medicine. By the mid-20th century, even the dullest minds in government had figured this out.

But duller minds were yet to come. Enter the administration of George W. Bush. In 2008, it is hawking control of salmon-eating birds, fish and mammals as if this were Dr. Kickapoo’s Elixir for Rheum, Ague, Blindness and Insanity.

Virtually the entire scientific community agrees that if the four nearly useless Snake River dams remain in place, Columbia and Snake river salmon stocks will go extinct. Even Bush’s National Marine Fisheries Service has admitted this. Mostly because of these dams, the system’s cohos are already extinct, sockeyes functionally extinct and 13 stocks in 78 populations are threatened or endangered.

Yet last October, the Fisheries Service released its draft Columbia-Snake salmon plan that calls for a surge in the war on predators. The surge, together with barging young salmon, increasing hatchery production and all the other bells, whistles and tweaks that have failed so spectacularly in the past, will cost $800 million every year. By comparison, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates the cost of breaching the dams at $1 billion.

There is no legal alternative to saving and restoring Columbia-Snake river salmon. The Endangered Species Act requires it. U.S. District Court Judge James Redden, who declared the Fisheries Service’s previous plan illegal in 2005, and its amended version illegal in 2006, has threatened to vacate the administration’s current plan, in which it trots out the ancient predator-scapegoats -- squawfish, Caspian terns and sea lions.

Squawfish, or “pikeminnows,” as the PC fish police have attempted to rename them, proliferate in dam-made dead-water where they eat ocean-bound salmon smolts, especially the ones milling around as they strive to figure out the nearly non-existent current, and those injured or disoriented by passing through turbines.

Although no bounty system anywhere has ever worked, the Bonneville Power Administration is funding the biggest one in history. Implementing this counter-insurgency are Oregon and Washington. “How can YOU save a salmon? Go fishing!” proclaims the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, calling to mind the equally brainless bumper sticker popular in Idaho and Wyoming: "Save a Deer. Kill a Wolf."

For your first 100 squawfish you get $4 each; then $5 each. When you hit 400 fish, the bounty rises to $8. Catch a tagged squawfish and you collect $500. Last year, taxpayers paid out almost $1.3 million in squawfish bounties. Yet the squawfish population remains healthy and stable: In 2000, bounty hunters killed 187,596 fish; seven years later they killed 190,870.

Squawfish are natives. But what are the feds and states doing about the alien smallmouth bass that also proliferate in the tepid impoundments and that also eat smolts? Nothing; they’re popular with license buyers who almost always release them.

Then there are those pesky sea lions. Because salmon out-swim them in the open sea, the fish aren’t their natural prey. But sea lions are quick to take advantage of unnatural situations. So they've learned to travel 140 miles up the Columbia River and chow down on adult salmon butting into the Bonneville dam. Last March, the Fisheries Service granted Oregon and Washington permission to annually kill 85 sea lions.

But there are also those voracious Caspian terns, which see the salmon hatcheries on the lower Columbia as the world’s biggest bird feeders. By 1998, 18,000 terns were nesting on dredge-spoil dumps. Because they were also eating wild fish, the Fisheries Service and the Corps of Engineers set about moving the colonies to another spoil dump closer to the Pacific. But the birds continued to proliferate. Now the feds plan to move them yet again, this time to six new locations, including an island the Corps will build for them on an inland reservoir. Projected cost for the first year: $2.4 million.

Suppose the Bush administration prevails against squawfish, sea lions and terns. Is it then going to pacify the rest of nature? Will it attack cormorants, which eat more smolts than sea lions and terns combined? And what about orcas and those smolt-swilling walleyes and coastal cutthroat trout?

One gets the impression that if seismic activity threatened an obsolete dam, our federal government would try to rearrange earth’s tectonic plates. On the Snake River, we can save dams or salmon -- not both. The administration knows this. Its war on predators is based on deception. There can be no end and no victory.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is conservation editor for Fly Rod & Reel magazine and lives in Vermont.

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