US protection for salmon from Idaho, steelhead is here to stay

BOISE, Idaho — A five-year review by U.S. officials has determined that Endangered Species Act protection for ocean salmon and steelhead breeding in the Snake River and its Idaho tributaries should remain in effect.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Division assessment released Thursday found that steelhead, spring and summer chinook, sockeye and fall chinook returning to Idaho in Pacific rivers still need their federal protection.

The protections include restrictions on fishing, restrictions on how much water can be used for irrigation, pollution control for industries, and dam operations in the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The assessment said threats from climate change are increasing the urgency of completing recommended fish recovery actions — including improving fish passage at hydropower dams, restoring their habitats, controlling predators and changing hatchery practices.

Of the four species returning to Idaho, the sockeye salmon is considered the most endangered and was classified as endangered in 1991. The fish reproduce in high mountain lakes in central Idaho, and they staggered toward extinction for much of the 1990s.

A comprehensive hatchery program operated by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game that tracks the genetic histories of individual fish is aimed at restoring the species.

But the sockeye salmon’s population hasn’t improved much since it was listed as endangered, the review said. The species remains “at high risk of extinction” amid challenges posed by climate change, a lack of food in the oceans attributed to global warming and sea lion predation.

Snake River spring and summer chinook, classified as endangered in 1992, includes fish populations in part of the Snake River and in Washington state in the Tucannon, Grande Ronde, and Imnaha rivers. The fish are also considered endangered in parts of Idaho’s Salmon River.

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Historically, the fish spawned in Idaho areas they can no longer reach, including above the Hells Canyon Dam and parts of the Clearwater River watershed, the federal assessment said.

“Overall, the information analyzed for this 5-year review indicates an increased level of concern about risk status” for the fish, researchers wrote.

The researchers cited declining population trends and that no fish population reached a minimum threshold set by Interior Columbia’s Technical Recovery Team. The team is working to interpret information related to fish recovery.

Fall chinooks were classified as endangered in 1992 and include fish in the main trunk Snake River below Hells Canyon Dam, the Salmon River and Clearwater River basins and in the Tucannon, Grande Ronde and Imnaha rivers in Washington state.

Those fish can be recovered by reintroducing them above the Hells Canyon Dam complex. But officials in Idaho have fought that option, fearing that protection for fish above the dams could limit farming and ranching activities along the river.

The review found that the risk of fish extinction has decreased for Snake River fall chinook, but “the implementation of sound management measures to address hydropower, habitat, hatcheries, harvest and predation remains essential for recovery.”

Steelhead, a favorite sport fish that was classified as endangered in 1997, includes fish in the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers and in the Tucannon, Grande Ronde and Imnaha rivers in Washington state. The review noted that there is no longer a steelhead that ever rose in tributaries above the Hells Canyon Dam.

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