BOISE — A group brought together by Idaho Gov. Brad Little to find ways to bolster faltering salmon and steelhead populations has agreed to encourage habitat restoration but avoided making a decision about breaching dams.
The report by the Republican governor’s work group flatly states it’s not a recovery plan. Rather, it’s a list of recommendations approved by the group that includes conservationists, power companies, farmers, tribes, irrigators and ranchers.
At the group’s first meeting in June 2019, Little tasked members with finding achievable goals to improve struggling salmon and steelhead populations. They met 16 times through December to hash out recommendations, including creating a statewide inventory of habitat in all river basins and collaborating with property owners and water users to improve habitat.
“I am proud of what the work group has accomplished over the last 18 months,” Little said in a statement to The Associated Press. “This is the first time a broad group of stakeholders has worked collaboratively to help shape Idaho’s policy on salmon and steelhead. Over the next few weeks, I will review the recommendations provided by the work group. While a lot remains to be done, I am confident we are moving in the right direction.”
Thirteen species of Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead are listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, including all salmon and steelhead that return to Idaho. The Idaho populations once numbered more than 2.3 million fish combined, the report said. Now, they number about 45,000.
The group adopted Columbia Basin Partnership goals for Idaho runs that call for a low goal of 75,000 fish and a high goal of 385,000. The partnership is a task force that NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee put together in 2017.
The Idaho Conservation League, which took part in Little’s panel, “believes the work group’s recommendations, if adopted and implemented, will be useful ways for the state of Idaho and all Idahoans to help our fish,” executive director Justin Hayes said in a statement. “This is a meaningful accomplishment, one that likely would not have happened without this work group.”
The league was among the members who support breaching four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state that are blamed for killing many salmon and steelhead. Others oppose that move.
“Limiting our recommendations to only those that would enjoy consensus support meant that there were many policy ideas discussed but not advanced,” the report said. “Consensus on dam breach/retirement could not be reached.”
But the group did support operating dams to maximize benefits to fish and minimize effects on power generation. Idaho Power, a public utility with about 570,000 customers in Idaho and eastern Oregon, took part in the work group. The company has 17 dams to generate electricity and operates four hatcheries to produce salmon and steelhead.
“Given the objective of creating consensus-based recommendations, the scope and depth of the measures are quite impressive, especially given the large size and diverse nature of the group,” Brett Dumas, the company’s environmental affairs director, said in an email.
The group agreed that restoring sustainable salmon and steelhead runs would provide jobs and tourism benefits. It also said state officials should get more involved in regional forums that regulate the harvest of Columbia basin salmon and steelhead.
Members agreed to continue coordinating with federal authorities to ensure fishing seasons can occur for salmon and steelhead and that Idaho should promote federal programs that protect fish from predators like sea lions that feed at the base of dams.