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Working For Idaho's Extinct Coho Salmon

Aaron Kunz

The Northwest’s declining salmon runs have spurred marathon legal battles and inspired billions in spending to save the iconic species.

But Idaho’s coho salmon were never listed as endangered before they went extinct in 1987. Few people noticed when the fish were gone. But the Nez Perce Indian tribe did. And thanks to its extraordinary efforts, coho are once again returning by the thousands to Idaho waters.

A 15-minute drive from the North Idaho town of Lewiston will take you to Lapwai Creek. It’s a tributary of the Clearwater River. The creek is running maybe two feet deep. It’s near the end of the coho mating period and only a few are still alive. The rest in sight -- several dozen -- are dead. Carcasses line the creek bank on this cold overcast fall day.


The scene is so natural. It’s hard to imagine that a quarter-century earlier, coho salmon went extinct in this basin. Michael Bisbee is the Nez Perce Tribal Coho manager. He says a lot has changed since the coho’s 1987 extinction. He measures that change by the number of coho that have passed the Lower Granite Dam. It’s the last of the eight big dams salmon have to cross before reaching the Clearwater.

Credit Aaron Kunz / EarthFix
Michael Bisbee is the Nez Perce Tribal Coho Manager.

“Last year in 2011 we had a total of a little greater than 5,000 adults over Lower Granite," says Bisbee. "So within 15-years we went from zero adults over Lower Granite to 5,000.”

So what did it take to get those 5,000 coho to return to Idaho waters? The answer involves armed guards. And a tribe’s leap of faith that a species of salmon from the lower Columbia River could endure a 500-mile trip to mountain streams 1,000 feet above sea level.

For most of the 20th century, dams went up along the Columbia, Lower Snake and Clearwater rivers, blocking salmon passage. The loss of habitat, and heavy fishing in the lower reaches of the Columbia, all conspired to doom the coho.

And in the final years before the coho reached their demise in these parts, most of the money spent saving the species from extinction concentrated on those more prized as sport fish -- like chinook and steelhead.

Salmon have been reintroduced throughout the Pacific Northwest. But returning coho salmon to Idaho’s Clearwater Basin has been one of the most daunting of challenges for the region’s fish revivalists.

Earlier attempts to bring back Idaho’s coho had failed. The fish had been extinct nearly a decade when the Nez Perce Tribe saw one last chance. Aaron Penney, the tribe’s hatchery manager, explains. “In 1994 the tribe got an opportunity to get about a half million Coho eggs from the lower Columbia.”

Today, Idaho Fish and Game and the Nez Perce Tribe consider themselves good partners in managing the state’s coho. But in 1995, the state agency made it more difficult than the tribe imagined to bring the eggs to Idaho. The state agency refused to issue a transport permit allowing the Coho eggs to cross the state border. Idaho Fish and Game says it wanted a Coho management plan first.

That would have taken years. And if the tribe missed this chance, there was no promise more eggs would be available. Plus, these eggs were fragile and had to be transported quickly.

So tribal leaders decided to move the eggs anyway....without a transport permit. Aaron Penney was one of those involved. “So we had one of our enforcement officers travel with us in uniform and armed - ready for a confrontation but nothing ever happened.”

Credit Aaron Kunz / EarthFix
Aaron Penney

Here’s where the science behind reintroducing coho to Idaho got tricky. The Nez Perce needed these eggs to produce salmon capable of swimming 500 miles. These eggs came from salmon that traveled no more than 150-miles from the ocean.

So the tribe decided early on to be selective about its hatchery program. And it didn’t want hatchery-raised salmon to be a detriment to other wild salmon and steelhead.

“We’re not growing fish, cookie cutter fish to try and increase numbers coming back," says Penney. "What we are trying to do is release fish that are at the natural size of the natural fish that are out here in the rivers and the tributaries. So they are not out competing their brothers and sister and cousins that are already out there.”

The Nez Perce have followed these principles for nearly two decades. And in recent years the tribe reached an important milestone. So many Coho have returned in the past five years that the tribe no longer needs to import lower Columbia stock. 

“We release only progeny that came from adults returning to the Clearwater River. I mean, so we are really close to having only a localized Clearwater stock," explains Bisbee.

Even critics of supplemental hatchery programs like Bert Bowler of Salmon Solutions respect the work the tribe has done with the coho. But he says success isn’t guaranteed.

“The Nez Perce Tribe is working on making more of a hatchery program that tries to rear fish in the program, in the hatcheries that’s more similar to the wild," says Bowler. "But that's pretty difficult to do.”

Nez Perce elder Charles Axtell has his own way of deciding the success of his tribe’s work to bring coho salmon back to Idaho waters. And by his measure, there is no doubt that the work is paying off.

Credit Aaron Kunz / EarthFix
Charles Axtell is a Nez Perce Tribal Elder.

"You see a lot of happy faces," says Axtell. "They are getting their humor back you know, that's the way the Nez Perce has got good humor. You hear laughing especially when they eat. You hear that laughter continuously and that's really good to me and good to hear.”

Copyright 2012 EarthFix


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