Birds, Salmon, and the Lower Snake River Dams

When we go birding, we often bird along stream riparian areas. These riparian habitats, particularly in our semi-arid shrub-steppe country in central Washington, are where we find the greatest numbers of birds and the greatest diversity of species. This is where birds and other wildlife species find water, food, and shelter. Birds thrive in these riparian habitats.

Our Pacific Northwest streams are fed by snow melt and rains, with high spring flows and low summer base flows. Our streams flow clear and cold from their headwaters, and are generally lacking in fertility. This clean, cold water, coupled with low stream flows during late summer, act as limits to the productivity of the streams. Mother Nature came up with a brilliant strategy, however, to enhance stream productivity in the Northwest and maximize production of fish and other wildlife: anadromy. The young fish born in the streams evolved to travel to the Pacific Ocean, grow fat on the ocean’s bounty, and then return to their birth streams to spawn and die.

This salmon life-cycle strategy brought many pounds of ocean-derived nutrients back to the salmon spawning grounds, where the dying salmon carcasses fertilized the entire food chain of our Northwest streams, not only guaranteeing food for the next generation of young salmon, but also enhancing the productivity of the entire riparian system. Researchers are able to find these ocean-derived nutrients in the flesh and tissues of scores of other species of insects, animals, birds, and plants in the riparian habitats. Indeed, this ‘imported nutrients strategy’ has been nature’s way of enhancing the productivity and species diversity of Pacific Northwest riparian habitats for thousands of years. So salmon are a keystone species that even enhance our birding in riparian areas.

Over the last 10,000 years or so, salmon adapted their life cycles to the stream flow conditions in Northwest streams. Young salmon fry undergo smoltification, a physiological change that allows them to survive in saltwater. The salmon fry have a time clock ticking as they change and become smolts. For thousands of years, the salmon fry rode the high springtime freshet flows downstream all the way to the Pacific Ocean, as they underwent their physiological change. Their passage to the ocean was fast, assisted by the flushing current in the free-flowing rivers. This minimized the amount of energy the salmon fry had to expend to journey to the ocean. Nature’s plan was elegantly simple and efficient. But we humans have built dams along most of our Northwest rivers in the last 50 to 80 years that interrupt nature’s plan and interfere with our salmon’s journey to the ocean.

Salmon runs in our Columbia/Snake River system have been decimated over the past hundred years or so. There are many reasons for this: overharvest, loss of access to their upstream spawning habitat, issues associated with poor hatchery management, and the construction of scores of dams. For several decades now, various agencies and organizations have spent billions of dollars trying to restore healthy numbers of salmon and steelhead to our Northwest streams, with limited success. In many cases these efforts have failed, with many salmon populations now listed as threatened or endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Indeed, it seems to me that our human recovery strategies are not working. Many salmon runs are heading towards extinction in the Northwest, with their annual numbers fluctuating like the flickering of a light bulb before it finally burns out and is extinguished forever. I think we need to reexamine our failed human strategies for salmon recovery and adopt nature’s strategies. We need to work to restore more natural flow conditions in our rivers - those flow regimes that the salmon adapted to and thrived in over thousands of years.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bonneville Power Administration, operate the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers. For more than 20 years now, and counting, these agencies have spent more than $17 billion dollars implementing improvements at the dams to improve smolt survival. These agencies have prepared and submitted Biological Assessments, as required by Section 7 of the ESA, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (the Services), examining the effects of operating the FCRPS on ESA-listed species. And the Services have issued Biological Opinions (salmon recovery plans), requiring mitigation measures to ensure that the operation of the FCRPS dams does not jeopardize the continuing existence of ESA-listed species. Salmon advocates have challenged these several Biological Opinions in Federal Court, and the Court has consistently found that these Biological Opinions are inadequate and do not ensure protection and recovery of salmon.

The 4 lower Snake River dams create 150 miles of slack-water reservoirs through largely-treeless country in eastern Washington. The summer sun heats the reservoir water sometimes to temperatures that exceed the 68-degree Fahrenheit ‘harm’ threshold for salmon. Heating of this reservoir water will only worsen as our Earth continues to warm with climate change. Salmon fry are not carried along by spring high flows here, but rather have to expend their limited energy to swim through these reservoirs. Non-native predator fish, introduced by humans, like Smallmouth Bass, Walleye, and Channel Catfish, gorge on out-migrating salmon fry, particularly where the fry accumulate around dam passage areas. Smolt to adult survival rates need to be 2-4% for a salmon run to sustain itself. Wild Snake River spring Chinook Salmon runs have had just 0.5-1.0% survival rates for the last 20 years, as they dwindle towards extinction. The latest Biological Opinion acknowledges that removal of the 4 lower Snake River dams would allow recovery of the wild Snake River spring Chinook Salmon runs, but so far has not called for dam removal.

U.S. Representative Mike Simpson, Idaho Republican, has introduced a comprehensive bill in Congress that calls for removing the 4 lower Snake River dams and replacing the services provided by those dams: solar and wind-generated electricity to replace the foregone hydropower generated by the dams, rail transport to replace barge transport, etc. This is the first proposal that has been offered by anyone that is likely to restore healthy populations of wild salmon and steelhead to the Snake River system. It also would respect and protect tribal fishing rights guaranteed by treaties. Rep. Simpson’s initiative here recognizes that the only way to save Snake River salmon and steelhead from inevitable extinction is to take bold action now and remove the 4 lower Snake River dams. Rep. Simpson’s bill is not perfect. It needs some work and amendment to make it palatable to not only dam proponents but also to the environmental community. But though it is a work in progress, it needs strong support from Northwest environmental groups and from our Washington Congressional delegation and Governor Inslee. Rep. Simpson’s bill is a great starting point from which to forge a final bill.

I can’t imagine a Pacific Northwest without salmon. We need to take action to restore healthy populations of salmon to our rivers, starting now with removing the 4 lower Snake River dams. And this effort on the lower Snake River will inform the actions we must take to restore healthy salmon runs on the Columbia River mainstem and elsewhere throughout our Pacific Northwest.

See the September 2021 newsletter of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition for more information about this topic, at:

-Stan Isley