Local advocates fight for the Snake River salmon as the species face the threat of extinction 

Photo by Dana Lyons

Despite warnings from local tribes, scientists and community members about the potential impact on the local salmon population, the construction of four dams along the Snake River took place with the intent of using clean and cheap energy in the 1960s and ‘70s. However, the dams have caused irreversible damage to the fish population, killing between 40 and 92 percent of migrating salmon. 

The Upper Snake River Tribes Foundation (USRT) is dedicated to ensuring the “protection, enhancement, and restoration of natural and cultural resources.”

Danny Stone, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, is the environmental program director for USRT. For the last 15 years, Stone has spent his time working with the Upper Snake River Tribes. Stone manages and develops adaptive responses to climate change for his tribe and complex resource management projects for Idaho’s salmon that are listed in the Endangered Species Act.

Stone shared how the dams have altered the Snake River.

“It’s way too hot. It’s got invasive species in it now,” Stone said. “If we could get the river to a normal or functional condition, where it’s swimmable, fishable and drinkable, that would be awesome. That’s what we are striving for.”

Helina Alvarez is a Ph.D. student with a Bachelor of Science in wildlife management and conservation and a Master of Science in conservation leadership. Alvarez is currently working with the Fort Hall Reservation to conduct her dissertation with them. As part of her research, Alvarez is examining how colonialism and climate change have impacted the water complex on the Fort Hall Reservation.

“The best type of ecosystem is its most natural state. When you put in a structure that changes that state, there are going to be impacts. You’re changing the river system, therefore you are changing the flow, the temperature and the habitat,” said Alvarez. 

Another group advocating for salmon and the Snake River is the Youth Salmon Protectors. Lily Wilson, a member of the group and the Youth Engagement Assistant for the University Outreach at the Idaho Conservation League, says the Youth Salmon Protectors are fighting for salmon because of how vital they are to the ecosystem.

“Salmon are considered a keystone species. 176 species in the Pacific Northwest rely directly on salmon,” Wilson said.

The Youth Salmon Protectors’ main goal is to breach the four lower Snake River dams.

“These four dams we choose because they produce only 4% of the region’s power. 100% of that can be replaced with solar and wind. It’s the only way to effectively save the salmon,” Wilson said. 

The destruction of the Snake River is not only affecting the local salmon, it is affecting the local tribal communities.

Stone stated how the Owyhee River used to bring salmon right to the doorsteps of those on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. Once the dams were constructed, the tribes lost direct access to the fish. 

“[The Snake River] is the river that ties us all together, wherever you are from or what community you come from,” Stone said. “The Shoshone-Bannock people, the Paiute people, they have relied on salmon as a natural resource. Everything the tribes relied on was touched by the salmon. So the loss of that fish had a cascading effect through our ecology. It affected the tribes on a fundamental level, but it also contributed to ecological dysphoria that we are experiencing today in contemporary society.”

Alvarez explained how fish play a part in the culture and lifestyle of the Shoshone-Bannock people. If you affect the habitat the fish rely on, you also affect them. 

“It’s a cycle. If you throw a rock in the water, there’s going to be a ripple effect. You put a dam in the river, there’s going to be an effect to that too,” Alvarez said. 

Wilson shared that many tribes in the Pacific Northwest consider themselves salmon people. The Umatilla Nation, whom Wilson has worked with in the past, is passionate about salmon conservation.

“Salmon was the first food their people had; it sustained their culture. They promised the salmon to always use their voice to protect them, which is why they are such big advocates for Salmon restoration,” Wilson said. “They get most of their food, income, and culture from salmon.”

Alvarez explained that there is an intersection between colonialism and environmental destruction that leaves tribal communities without vital resources.

“When you put a dam on a river system, that is a colonial structure. And therefore, you’re alternating the natural flow regime. We’re seeing less snowfall, therefore we are seeing less snow melt, and therefore less water in a river system,” said Alvarez. “There are a lot of communities around the world that have been impacted by climate change. Frontline communities that depend on their resources and where they get their food and water; those are the communities that have been really affected by climate change.”

Stone shared how this year is the most stable the climate will be for the rest of our lives; it will only get more extreme. 

“Climate change is going to produce some very specific effects on disadvantaged communities,” said Stone. “It’s the function of colonization to engage in systemic changes to suit the environment of the society that colonizes. Every indigenous community, every indigenous person you talk to is already living through the worst climate catastrophe that you can imagine.”

To help indigenous communities impacted by environmental destruction, Stone says the best way is to vote.

“Choose the power. Make sure when you vote, you vote for candidates that have your values in mind especially if you care about indigenous rights and communities. If you have time to do it, offer services to your community. Find an organization that will allow you to get your hands in the dirt, do some projects, and physically contribute your time and effort to fixing something,” said Stone. “And try to be more familiar with your carbon footprint and make conscious choices.”

Wilson says it is easy to get involved and show your support. 

“Even putting a sticker on your water bottle or writing a quick email to a legislator. It takes a couple of minutes but it does make an impact,” Wilson said. “If salmon went extinct, which is the path that they are on now, that would be really devastating for the West. I don’t think people understand the volume at which the wild in the Pacific Northwest is reliant on salmon. Without them, it would be unrecognizable.”

Together with their communities, Stone, Alvarez and Wilson continue to fight for the Snake River and the local salmon population. “Even a fish needs an attorney these days,” Stone joked.

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