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Sports >  Outdoors

Idaho Outfitters discuss grim salmon steelhead outlook

Anglers fish the Salmon River, north of Riggins, Idaho, Oct. 14, 2013, in search of prized steelhead. (Pete Zimowsky / AP)
Anglers fish the Salmon River, north of Riggins, Idaho, Oct. 14, 2013, in search of prized steelhead. (Pete Zimowsky / AP)
By Eric Barker The Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – Clearwater River steelhead outfitter Jeff Jarrett summed up Idaho’s famed B-run of steelhead in blunt language at a forum discussion Tuesday.

“Life sucks. There isn’t much going on,” he said. “I’ve been an outfitter since 1985. Who would have thought we wouldn’t have a season this year?”

Jarrett was one of several panelists at an Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association forum, “Salmon, Steelhead and the Outfitting Industry,” at the Clearwater River Casino near Lewiston on Tuesday. The association is holding its annual membership meeting there this week.

Jarrett and other outfitters and guides who work on the Clearwater River were idled this year after the Idaho Fish and Game Commission closed steelhead fishing on the river because of low numbers of hatchery steelhead.

The closure has hit hard in Orofino, where Jarrett is based. He said he lost about 100 customers, another Orofino outfitter had to cancel about 400 trips and hotels in the town had more than 700 reservation cancellations in October and November.

“I just hope one day we get them back. It means a lot to everybody around here,” Jarrett said. “It brings a lot of money and a lot of jobs.”

Members of the association are exploring their potential role in reversing the dramatic slide in fish numbers over the past four years that has hammered their independent businesses and the rural communities in which most of them are located. Both are in serious trouble, according to the 60 or so guides in attendance.

Despite the hard times, they said they see an opportunity to become more engaged in the regionwide effort to reverse the negative trend and help shape potential solutions. Members of the group advocated for being united in their efforts, as well as reaching out to other interest groups in the region to help shoulder the load.

“A lot of us believe this will not be an Idaho solution. It needs to be a Northwest solution,” said Jerry Myers, a fishing guide and retired outfitter from Salmon. “Twenty-five years of science tells us we need a restored Snake River to stop the decline and rebuild our stocks to sustainable levels.”

Breaching the four lower Snake River dams was often but not always a part of the five-hour discussion. The group backed retiring the dams in 1998. Aaron Lieberman, executive director of the association, said he believes the members still back the more than 20-year-old resolution. The daylong discussion was designed in part to find ways for the industry to have a role in all of the potential solutions.

“The goal was ultimately to reengage the conversation about how the outfitting and guiding industry in Idaho can have agency in determining the future of salmon and steelhead that businesses in rural communities rely on, and to reaffirm our motivation to meaningfully do that,” Lieberman said.

The outfitters and guides and members of the public heard from a series of experts, including Ed Bowles, fish division administrator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife; David Johnson, director of the Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management; and Jim Fredericks, chief of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game Fisheries Bureau, who painted a grim picture of the status of Snake River salmon and steelhead.

Bowles told them while ocean conditions play a major role in fish returns, dams are the biggest human-caused mortality factor for the fish. To highlight the role the dams play, he compared the plight of salmon and steelhead in two rivers – the John Day in Oregon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

Prior to construction of the dams on the Snake River, spring chinook populations in both rivers were similar in strength. Since the dams were completed, both runs have declined, but the fish that return to the John Day River that must pass only three dams on the Columbia have fared much better than chinook returning to the much more pristine Middle Fork of the Salmon River, which sits above eight dams.

“The John Day which is below the lower Snake River dams is not ESA listed. It’s had its downturns, but it’s head and shoulders above the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and the Middle Fork has far better tributary habitat,” he said

Bowles also spoke about the flexible spill agreement implemented by federal agencies that sees much higher spill at the dams. It also gives the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration the ability to curtail spill and produce more hydroelectricity during times of the day when power prices are higher.

He said the agreement, forged out of an ongoing lawsuit, is benefiting the fish and also helping to break political logjams. He cited regional collaborative talks like the Columbia River Partnership, Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s Salmon Working Group and Idaho congressman Mike Simpson’s efforts to recover the fish, including possibly removing dams, as reasons for hope.

“All of those need to converge into a thoughtful discussion moving forward,” he said.

Many spoke of the need to engage political leaders in the effort.

“We desperately need help from state and federal leaders,” said Roy Akins, an outfitter from Riggins and chairman of the lower Salmon River Chapter of Idaho River Community Alliance. “This is about more than just restoring fish runs. This has also become a fight to save our small river towns in central Idaho.”

Kristin Troy, an outfitter from Salmon, said the group can take a lesson from ranchers in the Lemhi River Basin near Salmon who worked for decades to restore the river by bonding together and sacrificing. They were ultimately successful in restoring flows to the river and many of its tributaries that had been dewatered by their own irrigation needs.

“I think it’s a people problem,” she said. “We have a self-inflicted sense of paralysis when thinking of systems we created ourselves. It’s so hard rethinking those, but it’s doable. They did it on the upper Salmon.”

Little spoke at the end of the forum and restated his opposition to dam breaching and his desire that his salmon working group avoid the topic. The group, comprised of various interests including outfitters, those representing power and agricultural communities, Indian tribes and conservationists, has been tasked with coming up with a set of policy recommendations for the governor. The working group has been meeting for the past six months and has talked about breaching.

When pushed by audience members, Little said breaching threatens to dominate the talks.

“I was just fearful because of my experience, if that was the No. 1 recommendation, it would have gridlock on that committee and some of the other recommendations wouldn’t come out of there,” Little said.

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