The Biden-Harris administration recently announced that they will commit $200 million over 20 years to support the Spokane Tribe of Indians (STOI), Coeur d’Alene Tribe (CDA), Colville Confederated Tribes (CCT), and the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT) in their effort to reintroduce salmon into the Upper Columbia River Basin. This announcement is part of a settlement from a lawsuit brought by the STOI and CDA.
When in 2016 the federal agencies released the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the effects of the 14 federally operated dams on the Columbia River Basin, numerous tribes, state and regional entities recommended that the agencies consider salmon reintroduction in the Upper Columbia as an alternative in the final EIS. When not included, the STOI and CDA sued the federal government, challenging their compliance with the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Protection Act, and the Northwest Power Act.
Salmon and steelhead are anadromous fish, meaning they start and end their life cycle in fresh water but travel to the ocean. Chinook salmon can spend three to five years in the ocean, greatly increasing in size. For thousands of years, these fish were the mainstay of the diet of the tribes of the Upper Columbia—making up 60-75 percent of their diet. It was also a currency; they would trade dried salmon for buffalo with plains tribes. Tribes would meet peacefully to harvest salmon, trade, and celebrate. It is estimated that the tribes of the Upper Columbia would harvest 6.8 million pounds annually. Salmon are still a crucial part of the culture of the tribes, and they have been working tirelessly to bring them back.
The construction of Grand Coulee and then Chief Joesph Dams blocked access to 700 miles of Chinook and 1,600 miles of steelhead habitat in the Upper Columbia. But numbers began to decline even before the construction of the dam with the implementation of fish wheels and canneries starting in the 1880s. At their peak, these operations harvested 42 million pounds of fish annually.
“This makes it real,” Conor Gorgi, the anadromous fish biologist for STOI, stated excitedly regarding the latest administration announcement. He and the tribes have been scraping by for funds for the seven years he has worked for the tribes. But the tribes have been striving for decades to get these culturally and ecologically important fish back to their historic range.
According to Laura Robinson, UCUT’s Policy Analyst, “the funds will help implement UCUT’s Phase 2 Implementation Plan, which includes studying salmon behavior, migration, and survival through the blocked area and applying that information to inform the design, testing and building of interim fish passage solutions at the dams in the upper Columbia; developing fish acclimation facilities for each of the tribes; monitoring and evaluating the program which will feed our adaptive management framework; and increasing tribal capacity for implementation.”
Through their initial salmon releases in waterways such as Hangman Creek, Sanpoil River, and, in Conor’s case, the Little Spokane River, he has seen the ecological importance of this keystone species starting to return. Conor has seen Redband trout actively feeding behind spawning Chinook. He has documented carcasses being scavenged where those marine-derived nutrients, particularly nitrogen, will distribute once again into the inland forests. With this fund, Conor “sees a real path forward” and the tribes can make substantial progress to seeing populations of salmon return to the Upper Columbia watershed. //
Adam keeps thinking about doing lunges in preparation for ski season. He’ll keep thinking about it until spring.
Cover photo courtesy Adam Gebauer