History of a decline

  • Fishermen at Indian fishing grounds at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River. The falls and fishing grounds were destroyed with the construction of Bonneville Dam in the 1930s

  • Grain barge in the Celilo Canal at The Dalles, 1953

  • Ice Harbor Dam, finished in 1961

  • Spilling water at Bonneville Lock and Dam

  • Salmon smolts


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Salmon Justice."

Pre-European settlement: The Columbia/Snake River Basin produces between 10 million and 16 million salmon, making it the most bountiful salmon spawning ground in the world.

1933: President Franklin Roosevelt authorizes Bonneville Dam about 40 miles east of Portland, Ore., the first major dam on the Columbia River.

1945: Congress approves construction of the four lower Snake River dams to make Lewiston, Idaho, a port. The resulting barge transportation will supplant existing rail and trucking operations for moving Inland Northwest wheat crops to Portland for overseas shipment. Fearing the dams will wipe out Idaho’s legendary salmon and steelhead, fisheries agencies begin a long battle to stop them.

1952: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refuses to publish a report by biologist Harlan Holmes that predicts each Columbia and Snake river dam will kill 15 percent of the juvenile salmon migrating downstream to the ocean. Holmes’ forecast will prove highly accurate.

1955: Congress finally appropriates money for the first Snake River dam.

1961: Ice Harbor Dam, the first of the four Snake River dams, is completed.

1975:Lower Granite Dam, the last of the four Snake dams, is completed.

1988: Snake River coho are declared extinct.

1991: Snake River sockeye become the first of 13 stocks of salmon and steelhead to be listed as threatened or endangered.

1993: The Idaho Department of Fish and Game sues the federal government over its plan — or biological opinion — for saving salmon.

1994: U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh of Portland overturns the biological opinion with a stern rebuke of the federal government for its lackluster salmon recovery effort. The National Marine Fisheries Service issues a new opinion that is immediately challenged as having many of the same flaws.

1997: As the 1994 biological opinion is being challenged, the National Marine Fisheries Service writes a new salmon recovery plan. As a result, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismisses challenges to the 1994 biological opinion as moot. The new salmon recovery plan is upheld by the courts.

2000: National Marine Fisheries Service issues new biological opinion. U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh takes senior status and relinquishes the Snake River salmon case. U.S. District Judge James A. Redden agrees to take over.

2001: Conservation groups, commercial and sport fishermen, tribes, and businesses file legal challenge to biological opinion.

2003: Judge Redden throws out biological opinion and gives federal agencies 18 months to craft a legal, effective salmon recovery effort.

Summer 2004: Judge Redden orders the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to continue releasing extra water through dam spillways – a measure that aids juvenile salmon migration to the sea – for the duration of the summer. The Corps had plans to stop the releases midsummer.

November 2004: National Marine Fisheries Service issues new biological opinion declaring dams a natural part of the landscape, and therefore freeing the agency from obligation to offset harm the dams inflict on salmon and steelhead.

December 2004: Conservation groups, fishermen, tribes and businesses file legal challenge to this new biological opinion. May 2005 Judge Redden again throws out the biological opinion. Federal agencies appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

June 2005: Redden orders the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release additional water through the spillways to aid juvenile salmon migration.

July 2005: 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds Redden’s order for additional water releases over the dams.

Summer 2006: Judge Redden orders additional water releases over the dams to aid juvenile salmon migration.

Fall 2006: Just three Snake River sockeye – all hatchery fish – make the 1,000-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean to Redfish Lake in central Idaho. Wild Snake River sockeye are essentially extinct.

July 2007: Deadline for the federal agencies to submit a new salmon recovery plan for the lower Columbia River system. The upper Columbia and Snake River recovery plan is due four months later.

High Country News Classifieds