Snake River salmon headed for extinction without drastic action

5 min readJan 12, 2021

Dear Governors Brown, Gianforte, Inslee, and Little:

We are at a pivotal moment for wild Snake River salmon and steelhead. These fish, of tremendous ecological importance and value to tribal and non-tribal communities from Idaho to Alaska, are on a trajectory toward extinction. As scientists who have collectively studied and worked on the conservation and recovery of salmon and steelhead across the Pacific coast for decades, we write to express our professional opinion that abundant, healthy and harvestable wild Snake River salmon and steelhead cannot be restored and sustained with the four lower Snake River dams in place.

Historically, the Snake River basin was the largest salmon producer in the Columbia River system, sustaining over half its summer steelhead and approximately 40 percent of its spring/summer Chinook salmon. It remains exceptional in its recovery potential. The Snake River Basin presently contains 50 percent of the coldwater habitat available to salmon and steelhead in their native range in the Lower 48 — much of it in protected public lands of high quality — and that is predicted to rise to 65 percent by 2080.

Standing in stark contrast to that potential is the sad situation we experience today. Every Snake River salmon and steelhead population is listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), with recent returns consistently below the threshold needed to avoid extinction. Pacific lamprey, another anadromous species of major significance to tribes and the freshwater and marine ecosystem, have also declined precipitously.

This decline has occurred despite more than $17 billion spent on efforts to recover the fish. Except for one interim plan in the 1990s, federal courts have rejected every plan for operating the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers because they were not based on sound science and failed to require actions sufficient to avoid jeopardizing salmon and steelhead protected under the ESA.

The lesson is clear. Incremental changes will not recover these fish and if we do not remove the four lower Snake River dams, the basin’s salmon and steelhead are highly likely to become extinct. As Judge Simon stated in rejecting the 2014 federal salmon plan, this is a situation that cries out for a new approach.

The Columbia Basin Partnership, a collaborative group of 31 diverse stakeholders and sovereigns, recently agreed on science-based goals for wild salmon and steelhead that are not simply focused on avoiding extinction but rather strive to restore returns that are abundant, harvestable and healthy. To achieve the Partnership’s goals for Snake River fall Chinook, steelhead, and spring/summer Chinook, wild fish abundance needs to increase by three, four and five times, respectively. For the most imperiled Snake River salmon species, sockeye, just reducing the risk of extinction to meet the minimum ESA requirements necessitates even larger increases in current wild fish abundance.

It is our collective opinion, based on overwhelming scientific evidence, that restoration of a free-flowing lower Snake River is essential to recovering wild Pacific salmon and steelhead in the basin. We base our opinion on our deep expertise in the science of salmon and steelhead conservation including decades of collaborative research that has withstood rigorous scientific review. Continued hatchery reform, habitat restoration and other actions are needed, but dam breaching is the essential cornerstone of a comprehensive, effective recovery strategy.

Supporters of the lower Snake River dams have recently been in the news proclaiming coastwide salmon declines as evidence that freshwater habitat — and dams in particular — are not critical to recovery because the problem resides in the ocean. This logic is flawed. It ignores the tremendous body of scientific analysis that clearly demonstrates the importance of the freshwater phase of the salmon and steelhead life-cycle — from eggs in gravel, to migration to the ocean as smolts, and to migration from river entry to spawning grounds as adults.

Ocean conditions fluctuate. Recent conditions in the north Pacific have been tough on the fish. But a key to ensuring that salmon and steelhead can persist through poor ocean cycles and thrive during good ocean cycles is access to high quality freshwater habitat that produces abundant, healthy, diverse salmon and steelhead.

For wild Snake River salmon and steelhead to rebuild to abundant, healthy and harvestable levels despite fluctuating ocean conditions and our warming climate, we must restore their freshwater habitat and make their migratory corridor much less lethal. The region has invested billions in habitat restoration and hydro-system modifications, sharply reduced harvest, increased predator control and has begun reforming hatchery practices — and yet wild salmon and steelhead remain in dire straits. The one thing we have not addressed is the eight concrete obstacles in the middle of their migration corridor that have turned a vibrant, free-flowing river into a series of slack-water reservoirs. The fact that wild Chinook salmon have remained abundant and productive in the free-flowing Hanford Reach above the four lower Columbia River dams as well as in the John Day River above three dams is a testament to their resilience, 3 but the additional four dams and reservoirs salmon and steelhead must pass on the lower Snake have proven too much for those fish to endure.

We recognize that removal of the lower four Snake River dams will involve major change in the region, necessitating investment in industries and local communities to adapt to a free-flowing lower Snake River. We believe that there are affordable, cost-effective alternatives that can provide the economic benefits currently provided by the dams. We strongly support taking such measures. The weight of scientific evidence demonstrates there is no chance of restoring abundant, healthy and harvestable Snake River salmon and steelhead with the lower Snake River dams in place.

We ask for your leadership to develop a comprehensive solution that includes removing the lower Snake River dams so that the extraordinary potential of the Snake River Basin for people and fish can be realized.

Your consideration of our views is greatly appreciated.

Jack E. Williams, Ph.D.
Emeritus Senior Scientist
Trout Unlimited

David R. Montgomery, Ph.D.
Professor of Earth and Space Sciences
University of Washington

James A. Lichatowich
Noted Salmon Fisheries Biologist and Author

Jack A. Stanford, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor and Retired Director
Flathead Lake Biological Station University of Montana

Don Chapman, Ph.D.
Retired Biologist from multiple state and federal agencies

Richard N. Williams, Ph.D.
Research Associate
The College of Idaho

Bruce E. Rieman, Ph.D.
Retired Scientist
USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station

Peter A. Bisson, Ph.D.
Retired Scientist
The Weyerhaeuser Company and USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station

Charles Petrosky, Ph.D.
Retired Fisheries Biologist
Idaho Department of Fish and Game

Howard Schaller, Ph.D.
Retired Project Leader
Columbia River Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, USFWS




Emeritus Senior Scientist, Trout Unlimited, Medford, Oregon