(Produced and written by Aaron Kunz)
LEWISTON, Idaho — The Northwest’s declining salmon runs have spurred marathon legal battles and inspired billions in spending to save the iconic species.
But Idaho’s coho salmon were never listed as endangered before they went extinct in 1987. Very few people noticed when the fish were gone.
The Nez Perce Tribe noticed. And thanks to its extraordinary efforts, coho are once again returning by the thousands to Idaho waters.
Michael Bisbee is the Nez Perce Tribe’s coho program manager. He does much of his work along the banks of the Lapwai Creek, a tributary of the Clearwater River in North Idaho in the mountains east of Lewiston.
He describes the coho’s comeback by reciting the number of fish to return from the Pacific Ocean all the way past the Lower Granite Dam, the eighth and final big dam salmon from the Clearwater Basin must get past as they migrate home up the Columbia and lower Snake rivers:
“Last year in 2011 we had a total of a little greater than 5,000 adults over Lower Granite. So within 15-years we went from zero adults over Lower Granite to 5,000.”
So what did it take to get those 5,000 coho to return to Idaho waters? The answer involves smuggled salmon eggs, armed guards, and a tribe’s leap of faith that fish with the genetic coding to migrate a short distance from the mouth of the Columbia could produce progeny hardy enough to adapt to spawning grounds upriver 500 miles and 1,000 vertical feet.
Common Fate, Forgotten Future
For most of the 20th century, dams went up along the Columbia, Lower Snake and Clearwater rivers, interfering with salmon passage. The loss of habitat, and heavy commercial fishing in the lower reaches of the Columbia, all conspired to doom Idaho’s coho.
In the final years before the coho reached their demise in these parts, most of the money spent saving the species from extinction concentrated on those more prized as sport fish — like chinook and steelhead.
Salmon have been reintroduced throughout the Pacific Northwest; a similar coho program is being done out by Washington’s Yakama Nation Tribe. But returning coho salmon to Idaho’s Clearwater Basin has been one of the most daunting of challenges for the region’s fish revivalists.
Earlier attempts to bring back Idaho’s coho had failed. The fish had been extinct nearly a decade when the Nez Perce Tribe saw one last chance.
One Last Chance