By: Mountain Journal

Photo: Pat Clayton

Salmon: A Debate Over Dams And The Cause Of A Great Fish’s Decline

Right before our eyes, wild salmon populations along the Pacific Coast of North America are crashing. It’s no different in many ways from the stunning historic human-caused decimation of plains bison. As fodder for your consideration, see the debate, below, between two different experts. While there are many causes for the downward plight of salmon, including warming oceans from climate change, predation from sea lions and other factors, no one disputes that the most monumental catalyst for many salmon declines was the construction of dams on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers systems.

Did you know that both of these great rivers have headwaters in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem?

This is not merely a binary clash of economy vs. ecology. It is about broader human values, our place in the environment and moral/ethical questions surrounding whether we are willing to let important species go extinct.

Just as it is well-known that there are causes and effects between human activity and the health of Greater Yellowstone’s unparalleled concentration of terrestrial wildlife, so, too, is it recognized with the importance of salmon. These anadromous fish (which live their lives in the ocean yet spawn in freshwater rivers and streams) were the foundation for indigenous sustenance and culture, a vital food source for species ranging from Orcas (killer whales) to bald eagles, ospreys, seals and sea lions, sea otters, bears, dozens of fish and more. Even trees located along rivers with healthy salmon runs grew bigger.

Dams also offer a parallel for thinking about how development on a landscape like Greater Yellowstone can create obstructions that impede migrations of elk, pronghorn and deer.

Not long ago, Mountain Journal friend Jim Robbins, a western correspondent for The New York Times, wrote a story for that newspaper,  “How Long Before These Salmon Are Gone? ‘Maybe 20 Years.’”  It was subtitled “Warming waters and a series of dams are making the grueling migration of the Chinook salmon even more deadly — and threatening dozens of other species.”

This story set off a good civil written exchange in the Idaho Statesman newspaper between  between Kurt Miller of the organization Northwest River Partners, which is a hydropower advocate, and Dr. Helen Neville, a senior scientist with Trout Unlimited. With the permission of both, we are sharing their responses to Robbins’ piece below  — Mountain Journal.


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