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Nevada stakes its salmon claim

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


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."

Last summer, representatives from a coalition of Nevada sportsmen's groups wrote Reid, encouraging him to challenge the Hells Canyon relicensing. "The relicensing process represents a once-in-a lifetime opportunity, and perhaps our last chance, to pave the way for the return of the once-mighty salmon fishery to Nevada's northern rivers," says Larry Johnson, who owns a geotechnical engineering firm in Reno and is president of the Coalition for Nevada's Wildlife. "This project just stirs your excitement, your anticipation of what could be. (And) it's a wrong that needs to be set right."

Johnson, a member of the Konkow Band of the Maidu Tribe, grew up spearing chinook salmon about 100 miles west of Reno on California's Feather River, where a dam also wiped out the salmon. "They were a major part of our subsistence in the winter," Johnson says.

Members of the coalition, which includes representatives from Safari Club International, Truckee River Fly Fishermen, Nevada Bighorns Unlimited and other groups, are quick to emphasize they aren't "typical green environmentalists." "Most of us are pretty conservative," says Johnson, who has been involved in the construction of more than 40 irrigation and tailings dams in the region. Johnson and his fellow sportsmen also work with mining companies and livestock organizations in their restoration efforts.

Coalition members believe they can help restore salmon without instituting the land-use restrictions that can come with the Endangered Species Act. "This can be accomplished in ways that everyone gets a piece," Johnson says. "The last thing I want to see is a radical environmental group filing suit saying grazing has to be cancelled because of the return of salmon."

Not all Nevada sportsmen support the salmon restoration effort. Andy Burk of the Reno Fly Shop says the money should be used for more feasible projects than a fish-passage system. "I would rather spend that money on riparian restoration on the Truckee and the East Walker" rivers, Burk says.

Idaho Power attempted to operate a fish-passage system at the first of the three Hells Canyon dams, but it ultimately failed. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission then required the company to build salmon hatcheries as mitigation for its failure to meet its fish-passage obligations.

That's woefully inadequate, says Don Duff, a retired Forest Service fisheries scientist and aquatic ecologist who worked in Nevada, Utah, and parts of Idaho, Wyoming and California. "Hatchery fish are subject to more diseases and you lose the genetic strains of the wild fish that can survive."

Duff and other scientists believe fish passage in Hells Canyon is feasible. The Shoshone-Paiute Tribes have proposed capturing salmon below the Hells Canyon dams and then releasing them above the blocked areas. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is proposing a "trap and haul" test program where juvenile salmon are collected at a weir in Pine Creek, a tributary of the Snake, and trucked around Hells Canyon Dam.

"If we can put people on the moon and manufacture unmanned reconnaissance planes to use in the war, we can get fish over these dams," Duff says. "If we don't do this, we face the extinction of 13 fish species."

History, however, reveals the flaws in the fish-passage system. Fish ladders have worked in the Cedar River watershed in western Washington, where a single dam stands between chinook salmon and their spawning grounds. But the eight-dam gantlet that migrating salmon have to run on the Columbia and Snake rivers downstream from Hells Canyon is another story. The dams continue to kill the majority of wild salmon and steelhead despite fish ladders, nearly 30 years of barging and trucking smolts around the dams, and the addition of multimillion dollar fish-passage gadgets.

Indeed, the Northern California Council Federation of Fly Fishers - which supports Reid's initiative - says the region cannot afford to focus solely on the Hells Canyon problem. "It is our feeling that (Hells Canyon) fish passage without improvements on the state of the salmon in the Snake (River) in general won't be helpful," says C. Mark Rockwell, vice president for conservation. The group is asking Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to hold hearings on the desperate state of Columbia-Snake salmon because "frankly there is no time left to keep talking," Rockwell says. "It's time for action and only Congress can make that push." Reid's staff says he supports such hearings.

Meanwhile, sportsmen, fish biologists and other salmon advocates believe Reid's involvement could help prevent the remaining Snake River salmon and steelhead stocks from becoming extinct, keeping their wild genetics alive and viable for the day when there is again salmon passage all the way to Nevada.

"I may never catch a salmon," says Johnson of the Coalition for Nevada's Wildlife. "It's just the thought that my grandchild might see that."

"This should put more pressure on the people who own the dams to finally do something," adds Tom Smith, president of the Truckee River Fly Fishers. "If they don't, sportsmen and politicians are finally going to take action against them. It's a big snowball they're not going to be able to stop."

Ken Olsen has covered the environment and natural resource issues throughout the West for more than 20 years.

This article was made possible with support from the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation and the Jay Kenney Foundation.