The political science of salmon non-recovery, 101


If the 13 endangered salmon runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers go the way of the dodo on our watch, the responsibility for this denouement cannot be laid at the feet of the five Columbia River Indian tribes or their allies in the biological and aquatic sciences.

For two decades, in courtrooms and at hatcheries, tribal councils and marine biologists have waged a tireless battle against an unmovable foe: time. Their chief institutional adversary has been the Bonneville Power Administration, a semi-autonomous federal agency that distributes energy generated by a gantlet of fish-killing hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River Basin, a geographic area the size of France.

When billions of federal salmon recovery dollars flowed into Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Wyoming in the 1990s, politicians such as Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., rushed to protect industries whose profits are subsidized by cheap transportation, cheap electricity and free water. Overnight, the icon of the Pacific Northwest morphed from an ocean-going fish into a political football with gills and fins.

Attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable interests of science and politics in the federal government’s salmon recovery plans of 1995 and 2000 relied heavily on "the best available science." Yet, 10 years later, the barges still haul salmon to the sea, a handful of industrial farms still irrigate at taxpayer expense, and the extinction trajectories for Columbia River salmon are right on schedule: 2017.

Now, responding to a 2003 court order to fish or cut bait, NOAA Fisheries has unveiled yet another recovery blueprint. Regrettably, this draft biological opinion nudges aquatic biology one step closer to complete irrelevance while winding the spring on the extinction clock tighter.

"We’ve known all along that the Bush administration was determined to politicize science," says Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Tribal Fish Commission. "We never imagined they’d be this brazen."

NOAA Fisheries, for examples, says all it needs to do is to keep salmon from declining any faster than they already are. As Brian Gorman, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries, put it, "The Endangered Species Act does not mandate recovery; it mandates a recovery plan."

Up to now, the purpose of a recovery plan for endangered species was to establish a biological baseline as a benchmark for recovery strategies. In addition to including 10,000 years of native fishing as an integral feature of that baseline, earlier versions of the plan identified hydroelectric dams as "impacts" to salmon’s natural habitat.

The Bush administration never cared for the political consequences of that assessment. The 2004 Salmon Recovery Plan simply declares that the dams pose "no jeopardy" to salmon, as if they have been natural features of the river environment since the last Ice Age. Conversely, native fishing on these rivers is now listed as an "impact."

"This thing doesn't even meet the straight-face test," says Rob Masonis, regional director for the national nonprofit group American Rivers. "What will they say next, that the future of the passenger pigeon looks bright?"

Officials at NOAA Fisheries, who wrote the plan, argue that advancements in the design of removable weirs have made dams more fish-friendly by directing them away from intakes that flush fish through turbines. Conservationists counter that the limited data gathered on these newfangled contraptions tell a different story. Costing tens of millions of dollars, the new weirs have increased fish counts at spawning grounds by less than 1 percent — in good years.

At a hearing in federal court in Portland, Ore., Sept. 28, U.S. District Court Judge James Redden issued a warning to the Bush administration. Addressing a crowded courtroom, the judge predicted that the federal government’s new recovery plan was headed for "a train wreck."

So, in the coming months, as the extinction clock continues ticking, and as we reach into our pockets to pony up another $10 million to separate politics from science in yet another salmon recovery plan, we might recall Mark Twain’s verdict on politicians: If they started out dead, we’d all be better off, because they'd begin being honest that much sooner.

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and is the author of the new book, Coyote Warrior, a six-generation chronicle of a Mandan-Hidatsa family.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds