Oregon tribes urged President Clinton on Wednesday to declare a state of emergency in the Pacific Northwest to make good on a 140-year-old treaty and help bring salmon back from the brink of extinction.
“Will this nation allow the great salmon to be slaughtered as was the great buffalo of the plains?” asked Donald Sampson, a leader of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Pendleton, Ore.
The tribes said an emergency declaration is needed to end violation of an 1855 treaty promising fish to the Indians and to prevent further destruction of a 10,000-year-old regional fishing economy.
Antone Minthorn, chairman of the tribes’ general council, also appealed to the president to save the salmon. “If the salmon go, the culture and religion of the Indian people will also go,” he said.
The tribes blame hydroelectric dams for the demise of the salmon, several species of which have been added to the U.S. list of threatened and endangered species.
The tribes, several conservation groups and state fish and wildlife officials in Idaho are suing the federal government over its failure to protect the salmon.
The National Marine Fisheries Service recently issued a biological opinion outlining measures that must be taken to save the fish, including altering operation of the dams, which often block salmon migration upstream and slow travel downstream.
But Sampson said at a news conference that the fisheries service plan still relies too heavily on barging fish, fails to spill enough water over dams to speed migration to the sea and doesn’t lower reservoir levels far enough to help the fish.
Those measures are opposed by irrigation farmers, shippers and the aluminum industry, all of whom are dependent on water from the rivers.
Sampson, chairman of the tribe’s board of trustees, said the salmon are dying so rapidly that they will become extinct by early in the next century.
“These dams are operated by agencies of the federal government and as such are federally sanctioned salmon killers,” Sampson said.
In a few weeks, endangered juvenile Snake River spring-summer chinook will begin their journey to the sea. “For them, it is the last year of reasonably good outmigration for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Sampson said an emergency declaration would bring federal relief to the tribes and fishermen hit hard by declines in salmon populations.
“If the Columbia River were overflowing and flooding, I guarantee you the governors of the states would seek an emergency declaration,” he said.
“The economy of the tribes and fishermen are basically under the same situation with the operation of the hydropower system,” he said.
White House Budget Director Alice Rivlin told a Senate panel Wednesday that protecting salmon is a priority for the Clinton administration but did not comment on the emergency request.
“Columbia and Snake River salmon are a significant part of the Northwest culture, a symbol of the spirit and beauty of the region,” she said.
Rivlin told the Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water salmon also are “critical economically to the Northwest.
She said the regional salmon fishery supported 60,000 jobs and $1.2 billion in income in 1988.
“Today reports suggest that 90 percent of these jobs and incomes have been lost,” Rivlin said.
Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the river’s “bounty sustained generations of Native Americans over thousands of years.” Later, he said, the river was “harnessed by man to help build the economic and social structures of the 20th century.
“Perhaps it was inevitable that these two episodes in the history of the Columbia Basin would someday collide in the American mind,” he said.