It was one of those bitterly cold January days, although the skies were cloudless and the sun shone brightly on a blessedly windless blue day.
The temperature hovered at 6 degrees as we put the boat into the Clearwater River just as the sun was rising.
My longtime fishing bud, Father Steve Dublinski, and I had decided to see if we could catch some of the river’s “B run” steelhead, though odds were against us. We had an excellent guide¸ James Hollingshead, who had guided us before.
We put in at The Pink House just outside of Orofino. I knew it was one of former Gov. Cecil Andrus’ favorite spots because my former boss and I had discussed fishing holes when we drove the Clearwater to various events during the nine years I worked for him.
The river gods were with us because shortly before noon we started pulling in almost lunker-sized steelhead. Between us, we caught and released six magnificent steelhead – none smaller than 30 inches or 10 pounds. The largest was close to 36 inches and 15 pounds.
Two were hatchery steelhead, and had they been between 20 and 27 inches Steve could have kept one and I could have kept one. Because of their size, back they went, along with the other four fine fish. It was a great day on the Clearwater.
I spent much of the day reflecting on how much Idaho’s sport fishers should be grateful to the former governor for his long fight not only to protect Idaho’s salmon and steelhead runs, but also enhance prospects for increasing the returns. Efforts such as his dogged support for dam drawdown to aid salmon and steelhead smolt migration to the ocean were crucial.
Andrus also knew the drawdown plan was the best way to protect Idaho’s upstream irrigators. Likewise, the plan would save the lower Snake River dams from having to be removed in a last ditch effort to comply with the Endangered Species Act. As such, he was far ahead of the short-sighted folks at the Bonneville Power Administration who believed the dams should only be operated to maximize power production.
I couldn’t help wondering, knowing that March 28 is approaching, whether anyone would remember and say thanks to Andrus. The 28th will mark the 20th anniversary of the governor’s greatest court vindication, the favorable ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Marsh, who upheld the Idaho suit challenging the National Marine Fisheries Service’s conclusion that minor modifications to BPA’s hydropower operations plan would not jeopardize the continued existence of Snake River salmon.
Idaho sued to set aside NMFS’s biological opinion as arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law. In particular, Idaho had presented testimony in court by experts that the runs were on the verge of an “extinction vortex” and the computer modeling used by NMFS was highly suspect.
On March 28, 1994, Marsh stunned the Northwest power world and its many diverse interests by agreeing with the Andrus-inspired suit and ruling that NMFS had “arbitrarily and capriciously discounted low range assumptions without well-reasoned analysis and without considering the full range of risk assumptions.”
Not only did the judge say NMFS was wrong in its analysis, he went further and said that once jeopardy to the runs was found, NMFS had a duty to consider “reasonable and prudent alternatives” to dam operations. Implicit in this finding was Andrus’ drawdown plan, as well as possible breaching of the dams if all else failed.
Later events indicated the judge’s goal was to force a settlement among all the region’s interests that would indeed protect and enhance the various salmon and steelhead runs on the lower Snake.
That master agreement has never been achieved, in part because the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Marsh’s ruling. The result has been the expenditure by BPA of more than $7 billion in the first decade of the 21st century on failed efforts to enhance the wild runs. Yes, numbers of returning salmon and steelhead are rising but that’s primarily due to the massive propping up of those numbers by introducing ever-increasing numbers of hatchery-bred smolt.
Still, the fact that one can catch and release any salmon or steelhead in the Snake and Clearwater rivers is due in no small part to the dogged efforts of one Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. On March 28, all you fisher folks take a moment and doff your hats in a gesture of thanks to the good, great former governor.