After about a year of regular meetings, officials say Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s workgroup on salmon and steelhead recovery is moving into a new phase of drafting policy recommendations.

The workgroup, consisting of 21 members representing ranchers, sportsmen, power companies, conservationists and government, met Wednesday and Thursday in an online session to continue hammering out recommendations with a December deadline.

“What I told the group is that the governor is very impressed with how far they’ve come along in the year that they’ve been put together,” said Stan Eaton, policy director and counsel for Little. “They’ve had to balance two competing forces. One being that these collaboratives take time to develop relationships, to develop trust, to be able to get out any sort of recommendations. The competing issue is that everybody recognizes that salmon and steelhead runs are declining and time is of the essence. ... It’s been challenging, but I think they’ve done quite well.”

The workgroup has been tasked to collaborate on understanding the problem and coming up with recommendations to restore salmon and steelhead populations that have fallen in the recent decade to less than 25% of average. This year’s returning numbers to Idaho have also been dismal to the point of canceling spring salmon fishing seasons.

“Workgroup members dug deeper to discuss areas where we agree and where we don’t. We have a lot of momentum around policies that will do much for Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead, but there’s still a long way to go,” said Justin Hayes, workgroup member and the Idaho Conservation League’s executive director.

The workgroup has separated into four sub-groups to consider habitat, harvests, hatcheries, and hydropower (dams). Group members have been studying the issues and working on consensus recommendations to submit to the governor by year’s end.

“They’re kind of in that transitioning phase,” Eaton said. “Over the last year, it has been information overload. They kind of have to recognize when they have to put down the paper, turn off the internet and start writing, because they could be learning about this issue, because it is so complex, for the next 10 years and still not have a full grasp on it.”

Eaton said policy recommendations agreed upon by the workgroup will get the governor’s backing. One idea that lacks consensus is breaching the dams on the lower Snake River.

“I’m 100% confident that they’re going to send us recommendations that the governor will agree with that we can act on,” he said.

“Early on the governor said he was not interested in a recommendation dealing with (dam) breach because he knew there would not be any consensus,” Eaton said. “We know that that lack of consensus still remains.”

Eaton said budgeting may be an issue and some recommendations, such as fixes that are downstream and out of Idaho, may be out of the state’s control.

Stakeholders in the meetings took time to hear input from the public on salmon and steelhead recovery issues. Several comments were from business people directly affected by a lack of fish.

“Last summer, my wife and I bought this (rafting) business and quickly became aware of how severe the dwindling fishing opportunities are that were part of our permits for the outfitting business,” said Matt Rigsby, owner of Kookaburra Rafting in Salmon, before the workgroup. “Where the salmon runs were once legendary and the water boiled with the countless numbers of salmon and steelhead, most of the young people here haven’t even seen a single wild-caught salmon. What was once the backbone of our community is quickly turning into a legend because of the dams downstream of us that is out of our control and we hope that we all can work together to eliminate these dams and let nature start to heal the wounds.”

“What has become quite clear to me at this point is that salmon and steelhead need a river,” said Kristin Troy, owner Idaho Adventures in Salmon, to the workgroup. “And as a society, we need to address an antiquated power system in dire need of an overhaul at the very same time that the survival of salmon and steelhead is at stake. Timing is everything, and this is our greatest opportunity to end our paralysis and reimagine a system that we ourselves built. We have been high centered on this for way, way, too long.”

The workgroup is scheduled to meet next on Aug. 26-27 via Zoom webinar.