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Northwestern tribes and the feds dive into work on reviving salmon in the Upper Columbia River. Alaska Beacon

Three Northwest tribes and federal agencies are moving closer to figuring out how to revive the Upper Columbia River’s populations of Chinook and sockeye salmon, once among the most abundant in the world but decimated by dams over the past century. can bring life.

Leaders of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the Spokane Tribe of Indians met Wednesday with leaders from three federal agencies and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Portland to review progress on their historic agreement last year. to be discussed in September. . The 20-year plan, separate from a related agreement signed in December, marked the culmination of decades of work by the tribes, who were deprived of salmon after the 1938 construction of Grand Coulee Dam near Spokane and Chief Joseph Dam in Bridgeport. Washington in 1955. Fish have historically played a central role in their way of life.

Map of areas in the Columbia River Basin affected by dams.  (Northwest Power and Conservation Council map)
Map of areas in the Columbia River Basin affected by dams. (Northwest Power and Conservation Council map)

Both tribal and federal agency leaders discussed a range of topics, from obtaining needed fish from hatcheries and trucking them to areas blocked by the dams. The Biden administration said it would spend $200 million on the effort, but the sides agreed more money would be needed. Officials and tribes face challenges in working with Canadian dams and hatcheries, as well as competing interests for Columbia’s water from hydroelectric dams and agriculture.

Caj Matheson, natural resources director for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said getting the reintroduction work underway was exciting and long overdue. Members of the tribe have been cut off for decades from the salmon that used to migrate to them via the Spokane River, a tributary of the Columbia. The salmon are gone from the river today because of the Grand Coulee Dam. According to the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission, at least 10 million salmon once moved through the 13,000 miles of Columbia River Basin waters before the dams were built. Today, many of these salmon species are among the most endangered in the West.

“Over the years we’ve sat in rooms with so many federal agencies, so many people, so many leaders in this region,” he said, “and so many times we’ve seen people nod in agreement and even people say, ‘Yes, it is injustice. What’s happening to you, what’s happening to the Coeur d’Alene tribe, it’s an injustice.” And yet the resources to make that change simply weren’t happening.”

Greg Abrahamson, chairman of the Spokane Tribe of Indians (left);  Caj Matheson, natural resources director for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe (center);  and Jarred-Michael Erickson, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (right) during a meeting to discuss reintroducing salmon to the Upper Columbia River on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Photo by Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
Greg Abrahamson, chairman of the Spokane Tribe of Indians (left); Caj Matheson, natural resources director for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe (center); and Jarred-Michael Erickson, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (right) during a meeting to discuss reintroducing salmon to the Upper Columbia River on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Photo by Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Historic agreement

The agreement took a long time to be reached.

About 24 years ago, the tribes urged the federal government and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which works on energy plans and fish conservation, to discuss reintroduction. In 2014, they conducted a feasibility study to explore that possibility, and in the fall of 2023, President Joe Biden acknowledged the years of injustice the tribes had experienced and made a federal investment of at least $200 million to correct it.

The Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration are involved, along with the council, which consists of two governor-appointed representatives from Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho and is charged with managing energy production in the northwest. along with the health of fish and wildlife in the Columbia River Basin.

Progress and challenges

So far, several hatcheries have provided researchers with tens of thousands of Chinook eggs to study as the fish grow into smolts and then adults, and then study them over multiple generations. Researchers have started tagging the fish to observe their migration patterns. Obtaining sockeye has been more difficult because one of the few hatcheries in the area that has them is in Canada. Scientists say obtaining and tracking this fish across borders is a challenge due to bureaucratic procedures.

To get the fish back to needed areas, scientists are evaluating the effects of moving them on trucks. The method – called trap and carry – involves catching the salmon, placing it in a truck, then driving it and releasing it back into the water at the desired location. The idea would be to transport the fish directly to traditional tributaries where they would have spawned before the dams were built, such as the San Poil River in the Colville Reserve. These and other ideas for moving fish via ladders are still in their infancy, scientists say.

Officials must also study juvenile fish migration patterns, fish behavior, genetic resilience and hydraulic models over the next 20 years. Scientists are trying to understand how water can be moved through the Columbia, both for the fish and to meet increased water storage demands from agriculture and hydroelectric dams. In addition, a U.S.-Canada treaty governing hydropower and flood control in the Columbia River will be negotiated and renewed this summer. The treaty, originally implemented in 1964, did not take into account the health of fish and river ecosystems, or tribal fishing rights and resources that are now protected. There are fifteen Columbia Basin tribes working with the two federal governments to negotiate protections and benefits for tribal resources in future versions of the treaty.

A release of juvenile Chinook salmon near Keller Ferry, WA, May 2, 2024. Staff from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the US Geological Survey released juvenile Chinook into Lake Roosevelt to study.  (Photos courtesy of James Reeves, Bureau of Reclamation)
A release of juvenile Chinook salmon near Keller Ferry, WA, May 2, 2024. Staff from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the US Geological Survey released juvenile Chinook into Lake Roosevelt to study. (Photos courtesy of James Reeves, Bureau of Reclamation)

The lower Columbia River

On the lower Columbia River, below the Bonneville Dam in Cascade Locks, a decades-long battle over dams and fish recovery reached a turning point this year after an agreement between the Biden administration and four tribes to restore 13 endangered and threatened fishing areas and possibly break four dams along the Snake River, the Columbia River’s largest tributary. However, such a move would have to be approved by Congress.

The agreement calls for a 10-year pause in the legal battle, which dates back to the 1990s. It also includes a promise — but not a guarantee — of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds and other money for wild fish recovery in the Columbia River Basin over the next decade, along with support for clean energy production by the tribes, according to a White House statement.

Oregon Capital Chronicle originally published this article. Like the Alaska Beacon, Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.