Restoring healthy populations of wild salmon and steelhead to the Snake River basin could take 50 to 100 years and will require improvements in survival rates for young fish migrating to the ocean, according to a proposed recovery plan released Thursday by the federal government.
The plan was developed by NOAA Fisheries, which will accept public comments on the proposal through late December.
The recovery plan’s release overlaps with public scoping meetings held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration. Those meetings are gathering public input on what should be included in an environmental review of the federal hydropower system and its impacts on salmon and steelhead survival.
The 262-page NOAA Fisheries proposal calls for ongoing work to improve fish passage at the dams and other actions to restore habitat, reduce the effect of hatchery fish on wild runs, prevent over harvest and reduce predation by birds and sea lions.
Recent work at federal dams has increased the number of young salmon and steelhead that successfully navigate through the dams and reservoirs to make it to the ocean, said Ritchie Graves, chief of the hydropower branch for NOAA Fisheries. But about 35 to 60 percent of the young fish still perish before reaching the ocean, he said.
The plan provides a road map for restoring spring-summer chinook and summer steelhead populations across the Snake River basin in central Idaho, southeast Washington and northeast Oregon, said Rosemary Furfey, NOAA Fisheries’ recovery coordinator. Recovering salmon and steelhead will require resilient populations across a broad geographic area.
The Snake River basin once produced about half of the salmon and steelhead runs that returned to the Columbia River system, but the runs have declined over the decades. The spring-summer chinook and summer steelhead populations have been federally protected as threatened populations since the 1990s.
The proposed plan was developed with input from tribes, state fish and wildlife agencies and other federal agencies, Furfey said. It includes an analysis of how climate change will affect snow pack, temperatures and ocean conditions, she said.
Over the first decade of the proposed plan, the cost of improving fish habitat is estimated at $139 million.
The recovery plan drew criticism from environmental groups, who say it will be difficult to restore Snake River runs without breaching the four Lower Snake dams or considering other options, such as drawing down the reservoirs or spilling more water over the dams to aid fish migration.
“It’s a recovery plan driven more by politics than science,” said Sam Mace of Save Our Wild Salmon. “If they’re not going to address the impacts of the hydro system then they’re not going to get recovery. It’s frustrating to see these plans coming out that ignore the biggest issue fish are facing.”
In May, a federal judge in Portland ruled that a massive habitat restoration effort by the U.S. government doesn’t do enough to improve 13 struggling Northwest salmon and steelhead runs, handing a victory to conservationists, anglers and others who hope to someday see the four dams on the Snake River remove barriers to high-quality habitat in the Snake River basin. The judge ordered the government to come up with a new plan by March 2018.
At regional scoping meetings that began this week, members of the public can weigh in on what should be included in the court-ordered review of the federal hydropower system and its impact on fish.
The recovery plan released Thursday doesn’t include removing the Snake River dams but has language that would allow it to be modified based on whatever comes out in the court-ordered 2018 plan.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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