This fall, the most endangered salmon on earth is giving us another chance to save it from extinction.
Snake River sockeye salmon are small as salmon go, with a blue sheen when they leave the Pacific Ocean. That sheen has burnt bright red 850 miles and two months later by the time they reach their beds in Idaho's mountains. The bed is Redfish Lake, 7,000 feet high in the Sawtooth Peaks, once colored red every year by the radiance of 30,000 sockeye.
No more. Last year, four red fish returned to the lake. In 2006, three fish made the trip; in 2005, six; and in 1992, one fish returned. Then-Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus dubbed him "Lonesome Larry," and lured the attention of the networks by displaying it in the Idaho Capitol. He saw it as the symbol of a choice. Would the government change operations at its salmon-killing dams downstream on the Snake and Columbia rivers, so sockeye could survive? The answer, then and now, was "no." But Andrus still won something -- a life-support long shot.
Now, thanks to what the fish have made of that long shot, we have another chance to save some endangered salmon.
This September, Idaho's Fish and Game Department released 1,000 adult sockeye into Redfish Lake -- more than the lake has held in 50 years. They exist, thanks to an elaborate and costly emergency-room program that has husbanded every egg and bit of sperm for the last 15 years from the few sockeye returned from the sea. Biologists and technicians then applied virtuoso technique to these indomitable genes to rear fish in captivity.
The program is laced with paradox. Each year, the emergency room spends millions to hatch, husband and release young sockeye from remnant genes. Each year, the Army Corps of Engineers also spends tens of millions of dollars to kill nearly all of them at eight dams athwart their migration to the ocean. And each year, the good food and good living once produced by the salmon economy shrink. Of course, every year we pay for it all -- the careful and innovative husbandry, the killing -- so that the bill has amounted to $10 billion since 1992, and counting.
When rivers are so maimed as to endanger their most valuable fish, the surest remedy and best investment is to try to restore them. It's being done all over, giving river people, towns and farmers new life in their waters and extra money in their pockets. Many win-wins -- natural, human and financial -- can be built on a healthy river. This positive approach is missing from federal policy in the Columbia and Snake rivers. Programs like the emergency-room release of 1,000 fish are more like bridges to nowhere without the biological and economic context of a river that is getting healthy.
A salmon is the most present of creatures. But the species is a wheel, with death making birth, making death, making birth… The sockeye that slipped into Redfish Lake last month are now dying, but their offspring will go to the ocean in 2010. In 2012, the survivors will return as adults, and in 2014, their offspring will go to the ocean, in what once was a never-ending cycle.
So this fish, the longest and highest-altitude migrating sockeye salmon on earth, has given us another chance. Will we take it? Will a new president and Congress take it? In 2010, when the most Snake River sockeye in decades leave home for the ocean, will they be routinely killed, or will we give them back a little bit of water to ride through reservoirs and over dams? Or will we give them -- and fishermen and taxpayers -- a lasting solution in 2014 by removing four dams on the lower Snake River that no longer make sense?
This February, Idaho lost one of its pioneer conservation giants, Ernie Day. Ernie was one of the vanishing few who saw the real deal in Redfish Lake decades ago. On its east shore one year, he pictured it for me, and I formed a wish then that my grandson would see it as Ernie did, with thousands of red fish, summer on summer.
And with thanks for a task done well, we can close the salmon emergency room forever, and hand the job of turning the wheel back to the lake, the rivers, the sea and the sockeye. They do it so well, so freely, and then give us the bounty.
Pat Ford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Boise, Idaho, where he is the director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.