BOISE — Enough endangered sockeye salmon are returning to central Idaho this year that some will be allowed to swim the final few hundred yards into Redfish Lake under their own power, something that hasn’t happened in two decades due to dismal spawning runs.
State biologists expect 1,400 to 1,500 sockeye will return to the Stanley region, up from last year’s 833.
With room for 1,000 fish at the state hatchery in Eagle, Idaho, however, 400 to 500 will be counted, sampled for genetics — and then allowed to swim past the trap in Redfish Lake Creek and into the lake.
That last happened in 1990, and this year could begin as early as Sunday, one day after fishing for kokanee ends.
Biologists attribute this year’s spike to good ocean and river conditions, actions by dam operators to help young fish survive and the success of a sockeye hatchery program that was targeted for abandonment just four years ago. Only three of the fish from Redfish Lake made their way back into Idaho in 2006.
“We’ve seen a great response. Whatever we’ve been doing these last 20 years in the program, it’s working,” said Jeff Heindel, conservation hatcheries supervisor for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Boise.
Some 2,050 sockeye have already been counted at the Snake River’s Lower Granite Dam, the last of eight dams along their 900-mile journey. Two-thirds of them could survive the trip that starts in the Pacific Ocean and rises 6,500 vertical feet into Idaho’s mountains.
This year’s numbers still pale in comparison to historical sockeye returns before settlement of the West by Europeans altered the landscape with dams, massive commercial fishing, agriculture, mining and logging that all have conspired to disrupt fish migration.
More than 100 years ago, tens of thousands of sockeye returned to Redfish Lake annually, according to limnologists who have studied the shores of central Idaho lakes to analyze nutrients left behind by the fish that once spawned here, then died.
There’s an ongoing court fight: Four years ago, U.S. District Judge James Redden ordered Columbia and Snake River dams to sacrifice power production to help juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean by sending more water downstream; the federal government, he concluded, had failed to protect the fish.
Groups like Idaho Rivers United in Boise want to breach Snake River dams to help sockeye and other endangered salmon and steelhead get up- and downstream.
The group’s spokesman, Greg Stahl, said this year’s returns shows higher river spills ordered by Redden are working. Stahl said returning fish represent just a fraction of the smolts that head to the ocean annually through the hatchery program, and virtually all returnees are hatchery-raised, not products of fish that spawn in the wild.
“This is great news, fabulous news,” Stahl said. “But recovery will be about natural-origin fish.”
Heindel also cautioned against calling this year’s numbers — only about a third of the 4,361 fish that were counted returning to Redfish Lake in 1955 — a harbinger of a recovered species.
Still, it’s a sign that one of the West’s most endangered salmon, under the right circumstances and with a boost from science, has the natural-born resilience to bounce back from the brink.
“It’s responding as Mother Nature intended it to do,” he said.
In 2006, Idaho officials including then-Gov. Jim Risch objected when a panel of scientists suggested a $2.7 million sockeye hatchery program be dumped — and the fish allowed to go extinct — because of dismal counts. Risch, now a U.S. senator from Idaho, says the science said one thing, but his heart said another.
“I just didn’t want to pull the plug on it,” he told The Associated Press. “I’m no different than any other Idahoan. A majority of Idahoans, sitting in my chair as CEO of the state, would have reached the same conclusion: We were not done with this yet.”
Since then, biologists have boosted the number of smolts, or young sockeye, that they release for the trip downstream from Idaho to the Pacific Ocean to as many as 180,000.
Come October this year, Heindel expects to see a spectacular show at Redfish Lake as up to 1,500 sockeye — the males turn a brilliant red just before spawning — complete their life cycle.
“The place was named Redfish Lake for a reason,” Heindel said. “It hasn’t had hundreds or thousands of adults spawning there in decades.”
Idaho eventually aims to have a hatchery devoted to sockeye at the American Falls Reservoir, along the Snake River, that would raise about 1 million smolts annually, something that could boost returns five- to tenfold from even this year’s levels.