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Wild salmon and 50 years of Idaho’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area

Summer afternoon at snowy Sawtooth Lake, Idaho
Anna Gorin/Getty Images
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Moment RF
This undated photo shows Idaho’s Sawtooth Lake on partly cloudy afternoon in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area outside Stanley. The lake is a popular 10-mile round-trip hike and often snow-covered well into summer. (Anna Gorin/Getty Images)

What if salmon abundance is restored in the Salmon River headwaters? Guest columnist Pat Ford is exploring this question, in a story that is far from finished.

Fifty years ago, Idahoans in large numbers and variety asked the U.S. Congress to create the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in the headwaters of the Salmon River. In the 1972 creation statute, the first stated purpose of the new area is to preserve its wild salmon.

The opposite has happened. All the Sawtooth National Recreation Area’s wild salmon, like all native salmon and steelhead in Idaho, are being hurried to extinction. Preserving the fish that sew Idaho to the ocean would have required Congress to extend the national recreation area’s authority far downstream, through eight federal dams and 320 miles of reservoir in the lower Snake and lower Columbia Rivers. That was not remotely in the cards.

Later I came to know some of those whose work led to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Most of them feared in 1972 (Gov. Cecil Andrus, publicly so) that over-building of dams would doom salmon abundance in the Salmon River. They were correct. Despite that fear, they held the salmon banner high in the Sawtooth legislation. This came naturally – salmon abundance was part of their lives, their Idaho. Fifty years ago, the livelihood, recreational, cultural, natural, spiritual and family value provided when thousands of salmon reach the crown of the Salmon River was here – not history, not fading memory. (One proviso: Major parts of that value were unlawfully withheld from Indigenous Idahoans.)

In 1972, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimates that 4,478 wild Chinook salmon returned to the Sawtooth area Congress had just created. This is near the average return from 1970 through 1975. It is well below returns in the 1930s to ‘50s, and a fraction of astonishing numbers during pre-European indigenous management. But, for those I have spoken with who knew the Salmon headwaters in the early 1970s, the feel of salmon abundance was still present. The sights, sounds, smells, and rituals that accompany salmon in quantity were in decline, but still a part of local and Idaho life.

What if salmon abundance like that of the early 1970s is restored in the Salmon River headwaters? I am exploring this question, in a story that is far from finished. For now, before the Sawtooth National Recreation Area’s 50th anniversary year ends in a few days, I’d like to suggest some local guideposts for restoring salmon to national recreation area waters, once big change downstream opens the door. Chinook salmon are my example, though the points also apply, with some differences, to sockeye salmon and steelhead trout.

First: Restoring 1970s levels of salmon abundance in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area is likely if the lower Snake River is freed from its dams. Perhaps the most authoritative science in a hefty supporting stack is the Comparative Survival Study, continuous since 1996, by a deep bench of scientists from state, tribal, and federal fish agencies, and the Fish Passage Center. The study’s results and estimates derive from decades of data, what the salmon themselves tell us by their patterns of survival under all manner of conditions. The survival study estimates that restoring the lower Snake, coupled with optimal salmon spill at four Columbia dams, will increase the survival rate of central Idaho’s Chinook salmon three-to-four-fold. Such rates, if sustained, could restore Chinook in Sawtooth Country to their early 1970s average, around 4,500 fish, in under 20 to 25 years once the lower Snake is freed.

Second: Focus on distribution. The number of wild salmon now returning to the national recreation area’s waters is very low. Their distribution is just as important, and if anything is worse than the numbers. For example, the remnant Chinook spawning that still occurs in the Salmon’s long headwaters down to Stanley has concentrated in one area: below Sawtooth Hatchery to below Buckhorn Bridge. All other Sawtooth Valley spawning and rearing areas are now empty of Chinook redds (nests) or in single digits. Once the lower Snake is free (by which time this bad distribution could be worse), the metrics to watch in the national recreation area will be where and how quickly Chinook re-occupy a landscape of habitats now empty of them.

It may help to spell out what empty of salmon means: empty of adult salmon laying eggs, and laying down their ocean bodies; empty of salmon eggs, anchoring through winter in stream cobbles; empty of salmon hatchlings (called fry on emergence, later called parr) seeking food and cover through a year or two of growth before going to sea; and empty of all the extra quotients of life fed by this layered salmon presence when it exists across the landscape. 

Distribution also matters because the upper Salmon’s Chinook are not identical creatures, chickens in a coop. Chinook in the East Fork, Valley Creek, Buckhorn reach, Alturas Lake Creek, and so on differ behaviorally and probably genetically from each other. Salmon closely adapt to micro-conditions of their spawning and rearing sites. Wide distribution creates diversity, thus resilience, in the total population. The national recreation area, doing its part, has restored and reconnected a lot of salmon habitat which was damaged or blocked back in 1972. Now, enough returning salmon are needed to give re-filling the landscape a good go.

In the East Fork Salmon River, and Valley Creek, wild Chinook may re-distribute without much assistance from people. In the Sawtooth Valley, I think this is less certain. I say “may” and “I think” because I have more research to do. Surely the best managers of restoring salmon in the national recreation area will be the fish themselves. But humans may need to help initially, and then move out of the way, so salmon can spread out and dig in. The Sawtooth National Recreation Area’s salmon are nearly extinct; the faster and wider restoration can move, the better.

Third: The Sawtooth National Recreation Area holds the highest elevation salmon habitat, and thus highest-reaching salmon, on earth. This was true in 1972; its value is greater, and plainer, in 2022; and will be greater still in 2042.

Two large lobes that abut each other make Idaho’s cold mountain salmon refuge: the national recreation area’s Salmon headwaters, and the Middle Fork Salmon River’s extensive upper reaches. The national recreation area’s highest spawning area is slightly higher than the Middle Fork’s, but the two together are the prize. It is Idaho’s alone.

National recreation area streams are warming, but at a slower rate than lower-elevation waters, and with a little more margin. Three revered fish with deep roots in the human heart of Idaho – Chinook salmon, sockeye salmon, and steelhead trout – have a cold refuge here, a habitat and genetic bank for their species, if they are restored to higher numbers soon.

Fourth: Community. The livelihood value of the national recreation area’s cold water, with salmon back in it, is very high. Local people I’ve talked to have a range of views on that, and on attracting yet more people to the crowded national recreation area. But then, they go deeper: salmon belong here; salmon are needed here, as partners in health for lands and waters we love; we want salmon back in our lives, and lives to follow.

This same base layer exists in almost every local person I have talked with: Stanley and valley residents, Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Idaho Fish and Game staff past and present, Shoshone-Bannock people, river business owners, full- and part-time residents, young and old, women and men, local keepers of culture, history, and health. A biased sample, but it gives me confidence. These overlapping groups will, together, make good stewards of a salmon return to the national recreation area. The job will be messy, since it is mostly about managing and reaching people; rewarding, when people are indeed reached, and salmon spread; and long-term. Such local capacity to work together with focus on the fish exists in variations throughout central Idaho. I know it best in Stanley and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

Fifth: Any new version of Sawtooth salmon abundance will have an old/new partner in its vanguard: the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Old, because indigenous over more than 12,000 years of salmon abundance in the Sawtooth Valley and Stanley Basin. New, because the tribes will co-steward recovery of wild salmon in their traditional homelands, which was not the case in the early 1970s. Tribal salmon sovereignty in central Idaho has been rebuilding step by step in the 40 years I’ve paid attention. Each step has been won, not given. Returning salmon in rising numbers to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area will reward that work, and fuel a big next step in its progression. Idaho will be a better place.

Sixth: Connect the dots between these points. A restoration narrative emerges. A retired biologist uses this phrase to sum up the rehabilitation and reconnection of salmon streams he and others achieved on the national recreation area. I use it as an umbrella for what the re-invention of an ancient Idaho partnership, between people and salmon, could achieve in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area’s next 25 and 50 years, once numbers of returning salmon rise. Community, livelihood, justice, learning, lands, waters, wildlife, fish, conservation, and change are all in its embrace.

The people of Stanley and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, joined by many others, tenaciously await the opportunity to restore wild salmon to the headwaters of the Salmon River.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.