Nevada stakes its salmon claim

Snake River dams run up against a powerful alliance in an unlikely place

  • Nevada Sen. Harry Reid has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission not to renew licenses for the Hells Canyon dams on the Snake River unless they are modified for fish passage.


More than a hundred years ago, Gus Peterson ranched the lonesome high desert along the Owyhee River, just south of where it crosses the Idaho-Nevada state line. And like the local Indians, Chinese miners and other entrepreneurs, he hauled wagonloads of fresh wild salmon to places like Tuscarora, Elko and Winnemucca, where the succulent fish sold for as much as a dollar apiece. Indeed, salmon were a key part of the fish and game trade that nourished the region's mining communities in the late 1800s.

Salmon were so important that 19th century Nevada law prohibited dams without fish ladders. So when Peterson built a dam on the South Fork of the Owyhee that prevented chinook salmon from reaching this part of northeastern Nevada, local sportsmen demanded that the state fish commissioner force him to tear it out. "An effort will be made to have the obstruction removed," the Tuscarora Times-Review reported May 3, 1889.

But Nevada's fish-passage law, still on the books, ultimately failed to save the state's chinook runs. In the early 1900s, private power and irrigation companies started building permanent dams in Idaho and Oregon, blocking the return of salmon and steelhead to this far-flung stretch of the Columbia River Basin. The federal government joined the dam-building frenzy, and Nevada's last salmon vanished after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation closed the gates on Owyhee Dam in December 1932. Any hope of modifying those dams to restore fish passage ended when the three massive Hells Canyon dams were added to the main stem of the Snake River between 1958 and 1967.

Nevada's love for its native wild salmon nevertheless survived, and the state's sportsmen now are campaigning for their return. At their urging, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission not to renew Idaho Power Co.'s license for the Hells Canyon dams unless the privately owned hydropower giant provides fish passage, as mandated by its original license in 1955.

"Protecting wild salmon was important then," Reid said in a letter to the federal power agency in August, "surely it is even more so today with the species listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act and the expansive improvements to fish passage technology."

Reid is supported by a cross-section of Nevadans as well as by the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes, fisheries scientists, sportsmen and conservation groups from several Western states. The region is already facing the almost certain extinction of 13 stocks of wild salmon and steelhead, unless the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers make significant changes in the way they operate eight dams on the Columbia and Lower Snake, downriver from Hells Canyon. The situation is so dire that U.S. District Judge James Redden recently repeated his warning that he will take over dam operations unless the BPA and Army Corps dramatically improve their fish-saving blueprint.

With Reid now majority leader - and longtime salmon foe Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, sidelined by a sex scandal - the 20-year impasse over Pacific salmon recovery could finally be resolved.

"It puts Nevada at the table in terms of discussing the larger Columbia Basin issues," says Nevada State Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno. "For anyone who is concerned with salmon recovery in the Columbia-Snake Basin, you have to wonder if this will break the logjam."

For centuries, between 10 and 16 million Pacific salmon swam hundreds of miles up the Columbia and Snake rivers and their tributaries to spawn in their natal lakes and streams. Tens of thousands of salmon reached northeastern Nevada by way of the Owyhee, Bruneau and Jarbidge rivers and Salmon Falls Creek - all major tributaries of the Snake.

A band of Indians called the Salmon Eaters caught and ate Columbia Basin chinook along the Jarbidge River in Nevada more than 2,500 years ago. And the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes persuaded the federal government to include Duck Valley in northern Nevada and southern Idaho in their reservation in 1877 in part because of the abundance of salmon and steelhead.

"Salmon were the cornerstone of the tribes' culture and religion," says Tim Dykstra, fish and wildlife director for the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes. Salmon also were valuable for trade with other Indians and, later, European Americans.

The people who flocked to northeastern Nevada to ranch and mine in the 1800s revered the salmon, says Robert McQuivey, former habitat division chief for the state Department of Wildlife. "Almost every time a salmon was caught, it was reported in the newspaper."

The newspapers also reported the toll dam building and mine tailings exacted on the wild fish. In May 1889, the Owyhee Avalanche flatly stated that salmon would become extinct on the Bruneau River if the Snake River Ditch Company completed its Bruneau Valley dam without a fish ladder or other fish passage. But the salmon kept coming; as late as 1912, old-timers reported pitchforking fish right out of the rivers. Then, in 1932, Owyhee Dam was finished - and so were Nevada's salmon.

"It's a real tragedy there wasn't more emphasis on protecting (Nevada's) salmon, when the dams were built in Idaho and Oregon," says Merlin McColm, a retired biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. "A lot of people would jump up and down if we could get the salmon back. Think of what that would do for the tourist industry. Even if you couldn't catch them, people would go just to see them."

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