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U.S. promised Nez Perce fishing rights, but what if Snake River dams kill off fish?

UPDATED: Mon., May 10, 2021

By Eli Francovich and Orion Donovan-Smith The Spokesman-Review

LEWISTON – In a cavernous warehouse above the Clearwater River east of Lewiston, 1.14 million spring chinook swam, swirling together into evanescent balls of silver, breaking into smaller configurations and then returning. It’s a hypnotic dance under harsh industrial lights and spread among 38 large green tubs, each holding more than 30,000 of the small fish.

It’s just another Monday for the Nez Perce Tribe’s fisheries program.

A sprawling operation that employs upward of 180 people depending on the season, it runs projects in Idaho, Montana and Oregon. The tribe grows 10 million fish a year and spends around $22 million yearly trying to preserve ocean-going species like salmon and steelhead.

That investment is essential for a people – the Nimiipúu – for whom fish, particularly chinook salmon, have played a keystone spiritual, cultural and economic role for more than 16,000 years. For generations, the Nez Perce lived throughout central Idaho, parts of southeast Washington and northeast Oregon. They traveled extensively, hunting bison in Montana and fishing for salmon on the main stem of the Columbia River.

“There is an ancient covenant there that is between the salmon, the animals and us, as humans,” said tribal chairman Shannon Wheeler.

Now, that covenant is imperiled. Since the construction of more than 400 barriers up and down the Columbia River basin, populations of chinook salmon, steelhead and lamprey have plummeted – particularly after four dams were built on the Lower Snake River in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Throughout that decadeslong decline, the Nez Perce Tribe has continued to pour money, time and hope into restoring habitat and increasing survival for the migratory fish.

And yet a Nez Perce tribal study published this month found that wild spring and summer chinook populations are declining by 19% per year. If trends continue, by 2025 77% of the Snake River basin spring and summer chinook populations will be perilously close to extinction. Famous spawning habitat like the Middle Fork Salmon River will see fewer than 50 spawners return each year, if tribal modeling is accurate. The picture is only slightly less grim for steelhead populations.

“We’re at that critical juncture in time,” Wheeler said. “With the Northwest delegation (in Congress), with energy, with transportation – and especially, especially with salmon and the crisis they’re in.”

Spurred by that sense of urgency, the tribe has thrown its support behind a proposal by Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican, to save salmon and transform the economy of the Columbia Basin by breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River and replacing their benefits with $33.5 billion of investment in power generation, transportation, agriculture and more.

To the Nez Perce Tribe, it was a long-awaited show of support – launched at an auspicious time – from a federal government that has reneged, time and again, on promises and assurances made to the Nimiipúu.

Nez Perce Reservation  (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
Nez Perce Reservation (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

Wheeler turned to a powerful quartet of Northwest Democrats in the Senate for support – Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington, and Oregon’s Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley – asking them in a letter to come to the table in a “collaborative spirit,” as he said, and at least consider Simpson’s proposal.

“We’re trying to do all the right things here,” Wheeler said. “We need help with that.”

Fishing rights through a new lens?

Northwest elected officials have preferred a slow, careful approach to resolving the region’s long-running “salmon wars,” most recently backing an agreement last October between the governors of Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana to work to rebuild fish stocks in the Columbia Basin.

When Simpson unveiled his proposal in February, Murray, Cantwell, Wyden and Merkley issued a noncommittal joint statement calling for “all communities in the Columbia River Basin and beyond (to) be heard in efforts to recover the Northwest’s iconic salmon runs while ensuring economic vitality of the region.”

Meanwhile, in the nation’s capital, President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress have embraced an agenda of unprecedented federal spending aimed in part at righting past wrongs. While the Biden administration has woven racial justice considerations into its American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan – which propose spending a combined $4 trillion over a decade – Northwest tribes are still pushing lawmakers to make the fishing rights guaranteed by treaties a priority at the federal level.

A spokesman for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to lead a cabinet-level agency, declined to comment on Simpson’s proposal or how the federal government should balance tribal fishing rights against the benefits dams provide. The Interior Department includes both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees hydroelectric dams.

With relative silence from Democrats, Simpson has emerged as one of the most vocal proponents of treaty rights in Congress.

“If you look throughout history,” Simpson said in March, “the United States has not always kept its treaty obligations with tribes. In fact, you could say we rarely have kept our treaty obligations. One of the treaty obligations we have with tribes is to maintain the fishing rights that they have. You can’t do that if you don’t have fish.”

“I’ve been encouraged that the conversation about salmon restoration has finally been tied to social justice and human rights,” said Sam Mace, Inland Northwest director for the conservation group Save Our Wild Salmon. “Certainly the tribes have been talking about it in those terms for a long time, but I don’t think that our society or our elected leaders have been viewing the issue through that lens.”

Salmon in Snake River tributaries.   (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
Salmon in Snake River tributaries.  (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

Sophia Ressler, Washington wildlife attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmentalist group that opposes Simpson’s plan but supports dam breaching, blamed the four Democratic senators from Oregon and Washington for leaving an opening for the Republican’s proposal.

“Legislators in both states have wasted years allowing federal agencies to play kick the can with dam removal and salmon recovery in the Columbia River basin,” Ressler said in a statement. “Now they seem content to let a Republican from eastern Idaho set the course for the entire region in closed-door meetings. It’s absurd, and the residents of Washington and Oregon should demand better from their elected officials.”

Simpson, who sits on the influential House Appropriations Committee and is known as a wily legislator, has said he hopes to include funding for his proposal in the infrastructure package now in the works, even if legislation detailing the plan takes longer to craft.

“I’d like to see the money put aside first, so that we know that it’s going to be there, so that when we come to this compromise, when we come to this solution, we have the resources to implement it,” Simpson said in a virtual event Tuesday.

Murray, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said on a call with reporters April 27 there was likely not enough time to resolve the many disagreements over Simpson’s proposal and include it in the infrastructure package.

“The issue of salmon and our dams has been one of controversy for as long as I can remember, and we’ve been in court battles forever. So I commend (Simpson) for putting the proposal out, but it needs a lot of work yet,” Murray said. “We need to make sure that everybody has a voice at the table and has a look at that, and this infrastructure package that we are moving right now is moving fairly quickly. So it would be a huge challenge to get all those people at the table at this time to try and do something on that.”

In a statement Friday, Murray said she is “committed to making sure the federal government is doing its part to recover our iconic salmon runs.”

“I’ve fought hard to protect and strengthen federal investments in salmon recovery and research efforts, and honoring Tribal treaties and the priorities of our Tribes has long been a key consideration for me in all policymaking,” she said. “I’ll continue listening to local Tribes, advocates, and all stakeholders as we work to restore this critical part of our state’s environment, heritage, and future.”

While the Nez Perce stand to benefit clearly from increased salmon runs on the Snake River, other Northwest tribes have also backed Simpson’s plan, which includes provisions to help restore salmon, steelhead and lamprey in other parts of the Columbia Basin. Delano Saluskin, chairman of the Yakama Nation’s tribal council, brought the issue up when Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff visited Yakima County on April 6.

“We are fish people,” Saluskin said to Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris. “We live off fish. We honor the fish in our first foods ceremony. And if we don’t do something now, we are all going to be competing to catch that last salmon.”

The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, a nonprofit that represents 57 tribal governments in the region, has not taken a position on Simpson’s proposal but adopted a resolution in 2019 supporting the consideration of breaching the lower Snake River dams. Leonard Forsman, ATNI president and chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, said in an email the group has long advocated for salmon recovery “via litigation, government-to-government consultations, and in other ways.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Portland Democrat, voiced support for tribal rights in a joint event with Simpson on Tuesday. While Blumenauer expressed some reservations, the virtual event represented the closest thing yet to a Democratic endorsement of the Idaho Republican’s proposal.

“The Columbia River Basin sort of defines who we are, our history,” Blumenauer said. “But it’s not just us recent arrivals, white settlers and whatnot, but Indigenous people who were here thousands of years, and the basin helped define who they were, their religion, the way in which they traveled and worked together.”

‘Usual and accustomed’

To understand the salmon issue, and by extension the dams, it’s vital to consider the history. When white people first encountered the Nez Perce, they came across “the largest, most powerful and influential nation of Indians in the northwest area of the Rocky Mountains,” according to the Indians Claims Commission, a federal arbitration commission formed in 1946.

That history goes back much further, though. In 2019, archaeologists made headlines when they carbon-dated charcoal and bone left at Cooper’s Ferry on the Salmon River. Those artifacts are more than 16,000 years old, according to the research published in Science, and 7,000 years older than Kennewick Man, whose skeletal remains were found along the Columbia in 1996.

That’s a fact Wheeler emphasized several times, always quick to add that this is the oldest “documented” proof. In other words, the Nez Perce were not surprised by the study’s findings.

“Our stories already tell us how long we’ve been here. … This (study) only reaffirms that,” Nakia Williamson, the tribe’s director of cultural resources, told Science in 2019.

Indeed, tribal biologists consider tribal lore when conducting fisheries work. Stories passed down from generation to generation aren’t just myths and legends: they’re relaying important ecological information, a fact laid out in the tribe’s fisheries management plans.

“Oral traditions are stories that teach many of the central concepts used in contemporary natural resource management,” the plan states, adding later “animals and humans are fully integrated and connected with the ecosystem; humans do not exist independent of the world and animals around them.”

This interconnection proved fruitful for the Nez Perce. It’s estimated that tribal people ate 300 pounds of fish per year. When in 1805 the Nez Perce people saved Lewis and Clark from starvation, they fed the explorers dried salmon. The tribe’s welcome was so warm it prompted Clark to write that it exceeded even the hospitality from “our own countrymen.” Lewis and Clark later gave the Nez Perce a peace medal.

The peace did not last.

By 1850, more white people moved into the area, leading to greater conflict. That led to the 1855 Treaty of Walla Walla. Unlike many other tribes, the Nez Perce retained nearly 60% of their native land – roughly 8 million acres.

In exchange for ceding their land, the federal government guaranteed the Nimiipúu “the exclusive right of taking fish in the streams running through and bordering” the Nez Perce Reservation “and at all other usual and accustomed stations.”

And, fatefully, the tribe retained expansive off-reservation hunting and fishing rights throughout current day Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon, the so-called “usual and accustomed” places.

This state of affairs lasted less than a decade. By 1860, gold had been discovered in the North Fork of the Clearwater River and white people were flooding into Nez Perce lands. Whole towns, including Orofino and Lewiston, were built in violation of the treaty.

In response, the U.S. government shredded the 1855 treaty and shrank the Nez Perce lands to just 770,000 acres. The 1863 treaty, known as the “great steal” by the Nimiipúu, led to a brutal war in 1877 that sent Nimiipúu children and women fleeing to Canada, chased by U.S. soldiers.

Despite that, one thing didn’t change: The Nez Perce retained the legal right to fish and hunt off the reservation.

‘We’re not pretending here’

This is the history that must be understood when discussing dams or the commitment the tribe has to salmon – and the commitment the United States has to the tribe.

Since its founding in 1981, the Nez Perce fisheries department has tried to make the fisheries whole. They’ve improved wild spawning habitat up and down the Snake River basin, worked with state and federal managers to reduce predation on salmon, improve survival over the dams and invested millions into hatchery programs.

All that work has helped, but it’s not been enough, said David Johnson, director of the Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Management.

Chinook and steelhead numbers have continued to drop, most precipitously since the construction of the four Lower Snake River dams between 1962 and 1975. Even the protection and billions of dollars provided by the 1991 Endangered Species Act listing of sockeye salmon has failed to stem the hemorrhaging.

“The hydro system is really the big one,” Johnson said. “It kills close to 50% of the fish as they leave from here and go down to the ocean. So that is a huge source of mortality.”

The most recent study, published this month, only further highlights the bleak reality, and points again to the impacts the dams are having on wild fish.

“The analysis … really slapped us in the face,” he said of the study. “We’re not pretending here. These numbers are really troubling.”

And those troubling numbers are the responsibility of the federal government, argues Elliott Moffett, the president of the nonprofit Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment. Simpson’s plan, which the congressman often says aims to make all the region’s stakeholders whole, is the “closest we’ve been to recognizing and acknowledging treaty rights,” he said.

“We’re really talking about mismanagement of our treaty and our treaty resources,” Moffett said. “It’s kind of ironic that everyone is asking to be made whole. When do the tribes get to be made whole?”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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