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Federal funds boost tribal-led revival efforts for salmon in upper Columbia River Basin

Pacific Northwest tribes are preparing to restore salmon in their ancestral waters with the help of $200 million allocated by Biden administration

By MIA MALDONADO, Idaho Capital Sun
Published: November 6, 2023, 6:03am

In June of 1940, Native American tribes from across the Northwest gathered at Kettle Falls in northeast Washington to mourn the loss of their historic fishing grounds.

Known as the “Ceremony of Tears,” the gathering drew thousands of tribal citizens from the Colville Reservation in Eastern Washington, Tulalips from Western Washington, Blackfoot from Montana, and Nez Perce, Yakimas, Flatheads, and Coeur d’Alenes. Together, these tribes united at the site to commemorate the end of an era that had once been abundant with salmon.

The completion of the massive Grand Coulee Dam gave rise to Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir situated adjacent to the dam’s structure. This reservoir would eventually submerge the fishing spot linked to their heritage and sever their access to salmon.

However, these tribes have a renewed sense of hope. After decades of research and new funding from the federal government, tribes in the upper Columbia River Basin are preparing to restore salmon in their ancestral waters.

On Sept. 21, the Biden administration announced it is investing $200 million for tribes to reintroduce salmon in habitats blocked by dams in the upper Columbia River Basin.

The Bonneville Power Administration, a federal power marketing administration under the U.S. Department of Energy, will distribute the $200 million over a 20-year period to assist the Upper Columbia United Tribes in their plan to reintroduce salmon into areas blocked by dams. The plan, which includes four phases, is now in its second stage.

The tribes will also receive $8 million from the Department of the Interior over two years to support the efforts.

The agreement, which includes the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and the Spokane Tribe of Indians, recognizes the federal government’s historical violations against tribes.

“It is a priority of my administration to honor federal trust and treaty responsibilities to tribal nations — including to those tribal nations harmed by the construction and operation of federal dams that are part of the Columbia River system,” the announcement, signed by President Joe Biden, said.

Upper Columbia basin once produced salmon runs with up to 16 million fish

Before the federal government in 1933 authorized the construction of Grand Coulee Dam — the largest hydropower producer in the U.S. — salmon could return from the ocean and reach Kettle Falls.

But the construction of Grand Coulee Dam and Chief Joseph Dam in central Washington blocked salmon from migrating to the ocean and returning as adults to spawn in their natal streams in the upper Columbia Basin, which once produced salmon runs estimated at 10 to 16 million fish, according to a report from the Independent Scientific Advisory Board.

Greg Abrahamson, the chairman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council, said the agreement will bring healing to his community.

“Grand Coulee Dam allowed the desert to bloom and many far away cities to enjoy cheap electricity at my people’s expense,” he said in a press release. “The Tribe never lost hope that one day the salmon would return to the Tribe’s waters, and this agreement will turn that hope into a reality with salmon in the Spokane’s waters. The Spokane Tribe believes when the salmon return home, we will begin to heal.”

Today, the upper Columbia River spring-run Chinook salmon are among the most endangered salmon on the West Coast, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Along with the upper Columbia River steelhead, Chinook salmon in the upper Columbia River are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

There are 281 hydropower dams in the Columbia River Basin and about 200 more dams built for irrigation and flood control, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

At a ceremonial signing, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said the federal government recognizes the cultural significance that salmon, steelhead and other native fish have among tribes along the Columbia River.

“Today’s historic agreement is integral to helping restore healthy and abundant fish populations to these communities,” Haaland said at the ceremony. “As we work toward comprehensive and collaborative basin-wide solutions to restoring salmon and other native fish populations, the Biden-Harris administration will continue its efforts to honor federal commitments to tribal nations, deliver affordable and reliable clean power, and meet the many resilience needs of stakeholders across the region.”

‘We don’t need to take the dams down’: Upper Columbia United Tribes lead salmon restoration

Five tribes that historically relied on the Columbia River and its tributaries to fish are spearheading efforts to reintroduce salmon in the Northwest.

The Upper Columbia United Tribes, formed in 1982, is made up of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the Spokane Tribe of Indians.

Laura Robinson, the policy analyst for the united tribes, told the Idaho Capital Sun that the group formed to advocate for their mutual interests in protecting natural and cultural resources.

“It was a time when the tribes realized that if they all work together and unify their voices louder, they can accomplish more in the region whether it’s directing policies or securing funds to protect those natural resources,” she said.

For over a decade, the united tribes have developed a four-phased plan to study the feasibility of salmon reintroduction with the goal to eventually reintroduce salmon into areas blocked by dams.

In 2019, the Upper Columbia United Tribes completed phase one of their plan, which tested the feasibility of creating fish passage over dams in the Columbia River and whether there is enough suitable habitat to support salmon populations. The research found that there are thousands of miles of habitat in the upper Columbia River Basin to support salmon.

The tribes are in the second phase of their plan, which is a 20-year phase that involves researching and includes creating prototypes of fish passages to experiment with the best way to get fish over dams — particularly Grand Coulee Dam.

Using the $200 million to help fund the work, some of the goals of phase two include:

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Establishing Chinook and Sockeye salmon donor stocks and broodstocks to produce juveniles and adults needed to test fish passage facilities.
Develop interim hatchery and passage facilities required to evaluate reintroduction.
Provide data necessary for phase three to determine the need, type and costs of permanent fish passage system and hatchery production facilities.

Phase three includes constructing permanent fish passage facilities and improving salmon habitat, while phase four includes monitoring the program’s success and habitat improvements.

Rather than removing the dams, the united tribes are advocating to create fish passages.

“The Upper Columbia United Tribes really see the benefit of the hydropower system and the dams in the upper Columbia,” Robinson said. “They are very powerful sources of energy, especially Grand Coulee, and we want to work with that rather than against it because we all benefit from that clean energy.”

The Grand Coulee Dam is the seventh-largest hydroelectric power plant in the world, and it typically supplies electricity to eight Western states and parts of Canada, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Behind Grand Coulee, Chief Joseph Dam is the second largest hydropower-producing dam in the U.S., producing enough power to supply the Seattle metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We know that we can get those fish over the dams,” Robinson said. “We don’t need to take the dams down.”

Salmon restoration is working, Coeur d’Alene Tribe says

Tyrel Stevenson, the spokesperson for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, told the Sun that in collaboration with other upper Columbia tribes, their tribe is seeing successful returns of salmon who were released as juveniles into Hangman Creek and returned to blocked dams.

“That was pretty exciting,” Stevenson said. “These fish remember what they’re supposed to do.”

Before the construction of dams, salmon used to travel up the Columbia to the Spokane River and all the way to Hangman Creek – an important fishing spot for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

Like Hangman Creek, tribes from all over the Columbia Basin would gather at the base of Spokane Falls to fish for salmon, according to Spokane Historical.

Spokane was once a tourist destination because of its giant 60 to 80 pound Chinook salmon that would make their way to the river, but that reputation ended in 1910 when the construction of Little Falls Dam blocked returning adult salmon from reaching the Spokane River watershed. Below the dam salmon still came, but they stopped completely in 1939 after the construction of Grand Coulee.

Stevenson said that unlike breaching the dams, the restoration efforts with the Upper Columbia United Tribes is an alternative to resolving the decline in salmon populations.

“Regardless of what happens with the breaching debate, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is saying that there are other things we can do,” Stevenson said. “We’re saying, ‘Look at this thing we can do on the Columbia.’ We have miles upon miles of prime salmon-rearing habitat that’s blocked simply because we haven’t figured out how to get fish over the dams. We should work on that, and it is great to see that the federal government recognized that there are other ways to look at this problem.”

Coeur d’Alene Tribe Chairman, Chief Allan, said the agreement is encouraging for tribal efforts to restore salmon.

“We have said for years that there are many things the federal agencies can do to help these fish populations, but they have flat out ignored us or refused to act,” he said in a press release. “Hopefully this marks a change in federal policy for the better, and we will continue pushing for full accountability and recovery.”

Idaho tribe, fish advocates say this is a step for salmon restoration in Snake River

At least one other Idaho tribe is celebrating the agreement, adding that it is a step in efforts to restore salmon populations in the Snake River — the largest tributary in the Columbia River.

Environmental advocates and the Nez Perce Tribe have advocated to breach the four lower Snake River dams, or remove a barrier of the structures so water would flow around the dams making it easier for salmon to migrate. Located in southeast Washington, the lower four Snake River dams are managed by Bonneville Power.

The Nez Perce Tribe, which has led efforts with the support of U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to breach the lower Snake River dams, celebrated the agreement.

In an Instagram post Sept. 27, the Nez Perce Tribe said it commends the Biden administration for taking steps to prevent salmon extinction.

“By publicly acknowledging that healthy and abundant salmon runs are essential, we know the Biden administration is prioritizing the needs of the Northwest and working to uphold our treaty,” the tribe said. “We are relying on these federal agencies to take the necessary, urgent actions to restore salmon populations in the Columbia Basin.”

In addition to the Nez Perce Tribe, Idaho environmental advocates commend the agreement.

The Idaho Conservation League, a statewide environmental protection nonprofit, said the agreement is a “step in the right direction” toward solutions addressing tribal justice, salmon and orcas.

“We applaud President Biden and his administration for saying the right things, now it’s time to do the right things,” the conservation league’s salmon and steelhead associate Mitch Cutter said in a press release. “This administration and all its agencies must deliver on the promises made today and the commitments the U.S. made to Northwest tribes more than a century ago to protect and restore abundant populations of wild salmon and steelhead.”

Cutter said the future of Idaho ecosystems depends on federal actions, including breaching the four lower Snake River dams.

Trout Unlimited, a national nonprofit whose goal is to protect and restore coldwater fisheries and watersheds, said in a press release that the federal government ought to follow the science behind salmon restoration.

“We welcome this order to focus the attention of the federal government on reversing the ongoing decline of wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin,” Trout Unlimited president and CEO Chris Wood said. “But this is a half-step.”

Wood said the federal government ought to abide by a study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that identified dam breaching in the lower Snake River as “essential” to protect and recover threatened salmon populations.

“It is long past time for America to honor its obligations to the tribal people who relied on these fish for millennia for sustenance, not to mention other communities across the Pacific Northwest,” Wood said. “The science is clear. The question is whether we have the political will to recover a species that defines the Pacific Northwest — to do otherwise would be a stain on our great nation.”

Idaho Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Idaho Capital Sun maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Christina Lords for questions: info@idahocapitalsun.com. Follow Idaho Capital Sun on Facebook and Twitter.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.