Better Red Than Dead

In this ecology-saturated age, everyone can identify an endangered species at 20 paces: lone elephants on the Kenya plains, pandas so rare that zoo loans from China required high-level diplomacy, California condors that must be raised by human hand before they can soar free. What an endangered species does not look like, surely, is the contents of a $1.79 can of salmon. As Helen Chenoweth, a newly elected member of Congress from Idaho, said at the Second Annual Endangered Salmon Bake in Stanley last summer, ""How can I [take salmon's endangered-species status seriously] when you can buy a can in Albertson's?''

Representative-elect Chenoweth may have to try harder. After decades of essentially no effective action to stop the salmon population of the Pacific Northwest from plunging to 15 million from 100 million in the 1850s, a reckoning day is coming. Under court order, a four-state council will vote next week on a new plan to save the salmon of the Columbia River Basin. The scope of the problem is not in dispute. According to one estimate, 107 separate salmon stocks -- populations that were born in, and hence return to spawn in, a particular stream -- are extinct; an additional 89 are close to following them into history. Outgoing Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus keeps in his office a mounted sockeye called Lonesome Larry, the last one that made it back to Idaho's Snake River, in 1992.

But Pacific salmon as a whole are nowhere near doomed, mostly because of fish farming and huge populations in Alaska. ""We've had record runs three of the last five years there,'' reports Dennis Phelan of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. ""We're up to our eyeballs in salmon.'' How much trouble and expense is justified to save the Columbia River salmon, then, if their Alaskan cousins are maintaining the species quite nicely, thank you?

From a legal standpoint, the answer doesn't matter. The Endangered Species Act requires that, when a species is in danger of extinction, the federal government implement a ""recovery plan.'' That can include restrictions on land and water use. But politically, the answer matters a lot, since any annoyed interest group can appeal to the courts and tie up recovery efforts for years. Salmon advocates make their case on both romantic and economic grounds. They cite the lore of the salmon, and the pivotal role it plays in the culture of the region, likening it to the bison or the bald eagle. ""The salmon is the heart and soul of the Pacific Northwest,'' says William Stelle of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Longtime fish activist Ed Chaney says the salmon losses cost the region's fishing and canning industries $10 billion; losses of tourist and sporting revenues push the cost higher.

Four key industries have combined to cripple the Northwest salmon:

Hatcheries breed and release genetically inferior fish. ""You turn them loose and they go belly up,'' says Chaney. Worse, by interbreeding with wild stocks, they weaken those populations, too.

Fishing reached such unsustainable levels in the 1980s that this year, in an unprecedented move, salmon catches off Washington were banned.

Logging can turn spawning streams from nurseries into salmon-egg poachers. With no shade, the fragile eggs become too warm to survive.

The culprits most responsible for the Columbia-basin salmon losses, according to federal, state and tribal wildlife agencies, are the 18 huge dams that provide the region with federally subsidized hydropower. The Grand Coulee Dam, built in 1941, blocked 1,100 miles of salmon-spawning grounds; Hells Canyon, in 1967, blocked upstream migration on the Snake River (map). Even when adults bypass the dams by way of fish ladders, the behemoths may doom the offspring of those migrants. Slack water behind the dams make migrating smolt vulnerable to predators, and turbines at the dams puree many of them. Up to 95 percent of some runs never make it to the ocean. The Snake River's sockeye were designated endangered in 1991, and its chinook runs were listed as endangered this year. Coho on the Snake went extinct in 1985.

In September a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that the hydropower system has to get serious about saving salmon. The ruling, in response to a suit filed by activist Chaney, has put more pressure on the Northwest Power Planning Council to come up with a strategy at its December meeting. (The council, which can set dam policy and is made up of representatives from Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon, has failed to come up with a successful salmon-friendly plan since federal law mandated one in 1980.) Andrus wants the council to order the lowering of the reservoirs behind four dams on the lower Snake for 10 weeks during the spring run. That would speed up the flows, sending the juveniles over the spillways rather than through the salmon-mousse-making turbines.

But the council vote is expected to be close. Utilities are lobbying for a forced-busing scheme rather than 10 weeks of lower power production. Marine workers would collect all the juvenile fish from the Snake, then truck or barge them down to the estuaries for release. That would be fine with farmers, who depend on the water for irrigation during the summer months and don't want to see it ""wasted'' on preserving the salmon. Trouble is, the Army Corps of Engineers has been barging and trucking smolt for 17 years, and the populations have still been plunging. ""You can't just FedEx wild animals to the ocean and expect them to survive,'' says Chaney. The aluminum industry uses 20 percent of the dams' power output, and it, too, opposes a drawdown. Thanks to dam subsidies, the Northwest pays the lowest electricity prices in the country -- 40 percent below the national average -- and farmers pay one thirtieth the going rate for water.

Industry advocates want to protect those rates. GOP Sens. Slade Gorton of Washington and Bob Packwood of Oregon have long made noises about gutting the Endangered Species Act. The costs of saving the Northwest salmon could spur them on. ""Salmon is going to endanger the Endangered Species Act,'' boasts Chuck Cushman of the property-rights group American Land Rights Association. ""To paraphrase Lincoln, "You can't screw all the people all the time'.''

But there are already victims of the policy that favored dams over fish, particularly the lucrative commercial- and sport-fishing industries. And ""victims'' of endangered-species protection don't always materialize: despite warnings that saving the spotted owl would cost 120,000 jobs, the region has added 279,000 since 1991, thanks to firms attracted by the Northwest's environment. If salmon disappear from the Columbia, the dams are going to make a sorry substitute as the inspiring symbol of the region.

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