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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Biden administration announces $200M in funding for Upper Columbia River basin salmon restoration

A Chinook salmon is released into the Little Spokane River by the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy and the Spokane Tribe on Aug. 11 at the Glen Tana Conservation Area in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

The federal government will devote more than $200 million over the next 20 years toward restoring salmon in the Upper Columbia River basin under an agreement signed Thursday.

The agreement between the United States and the Spokane Tribe of Indians, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation will fund research efforts meant to advance salmon reintroduction plans in the Upper Columbia, a region salmon can’t reach because of the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams.

Officials from each of the tribes gathered with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and officials from the Bonneville Power Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a livestreamed signing ceremony Thursday in Washington, D.C. Haaland said the deal solidifies a path for the tribes to continue working toward restoring a species so important to their people.

“For millennia, tribal cultures and lifeways have been closely intertwined with the salmon that defined them,” Haaland said. “Yet for decades, entire swaths of this region have been cut off from the salmon that rely on the river to complete their journeys to the sea and back again.”

Because of the agreement, Haaland said, “our future looks bright.”

Salmon once migrated up the Columbia basin in massive numbers, heading into streams like the Little Spokane River to spawn. Indigenous people relied on them as a food source, gathering annually to catch them, but the fish were also important to them spiritually and culturally.

The construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930s and the Chief Joseph Dam in the 1950s blocked the migration up the Columbia, and in doing so took the salmon away from the tribes.

Tribal leaders have been pushing to restore salmon in the Upper Columbia for decades, both for their ecological and cultural benefits.

The Upper Columbia United Tribes – the Spokane, Colville, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel and Kootenai tribal governments – are at the forefront of that work and have been carrying out a plan to bring the salmon back. A 2019 study found the basin has more than 700 miles of potential habitat for chinook salmon and more than 1,600 miles for steelhead.

Under the agreement signed Thursday, the Bonneville Power Administration will put $200 million toward UCUT’s Phase Two Implementation Plan, a 20-year research program aimed at answering key questions for the reintroduction plans – such as where they’ll get the fish and how they will get past the two dams.

Another $6 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will go to UCUT to support genetic sampling, salmon outmigration studies and fish passage development.

The studies over the next couple of decades are meant to set the stage for the ultimate goal: restoring robust salmon populations throughout the basin without breaching the two dams.

Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a coalition of small electric utilities across the West, said in an interview that UCUT’s plan “allows us to help salmon without degrading the hydropower system.”

Speaking at the ceremony, BPA Administrator John Hairston said Thursday’s agreement will allow his agency to continue “delivering on all of our public responsibilities.”

“It secures the vital role of the Columbia River system as a reliable, affordable power source for millions in the Northwest,” Hairston said.

Tribal leaders at the ceremony talked about the deal as a way of righting the wrong that was done when the impassable dams were built.

Hemene James, the vice chair of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said the end of the migration not only deprived Indigenous people of an important food source, but of the annual gatherings that took place when they went to the rivers to catch migrating salmon.

“It cannot be overstated what that took away from my people,” James said.

Greg Abrahamson, chair of the Spokane Tribe, said the agreement represents a shift in how the federal government thinks of salmon reintroduction in the Columbia basin.

“It is clear to the tribe that the U.S. after years of ignoring our request, finally looked at salmon reintroduction with an open heart and an open mind,” he said. “This allowed the U.S. to stop seeing only risk to the current way of doing things and instead allowed agencies to see how successful reintroduction can be for the entire northwest.”

Jarred-Michael Erickson, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, said the confederated tribes had their differences, but one thing they all had in common was their connection to salmon. Even today, he said, they “remain a salmon people.”

He described a “ceremony of tears” that was held in the 1940s to mourn the loss of the salmon after the dams blocked their migration.

“Today, we’re taking a step forward toward righting that historic wrong,” Erickson said. “Together as partners, we will bring salmon back to where they belong.”