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Fisheries Are the Lifeblood of the Nez Perce Economy

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The Nez Perce Tribe has the second largest economic impact in North Central Idaho and is the third largest employer in the region. The massive fisheries program which employs upwards of 180 people is a major contributor to those statistics.

Fish have always been vital to the tribe. Salmon in particular were a major food source for generations. That importance was recognized and protected during the Treaty of 1855 which gave the tribe total fishing rights within the original 13.4 million acre reservation.

The Columbia River and its upstream major tributaries in Idaho, the Snake and Clearwater rivers, once produced incredible numbers of anadromous fish, primarily salmon and steelhead. These species hatch in the rivers and streams, return to the ocean to grow into adults, then return to the headwaters to spawn and start a new generation before they die. Those incredible numbers were before dams were constructed for flood control and hydroelectric production which in turn caused other forms of habitat destruction.

Fish populations plummeted. Management for this massive area fell in large part to the Nez Perce Tribe and its Division of Fisheries Resources Management (DFRM) to try to improve the situation. Their website states, “Our vision is to recover and restore all species and populations of anadromous and resident fish within the traditional lands of the Nez Perce Tribe.”

Courtesy Nez Perce Tribe

Dave Johnson is program manager for the Nez Perce fisheries program which employs upwards of 180 people and an annual budget over $20 million.

Dave Johnson, Navajo, is program manager. Under his direction are seven divisions overseeing enforcement, production, harvest, watershed, biological services, research, and resident fish. It’s a big operation, all of which contribute to tribal economics

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There are offices in Joseph, Oregon, and in McCall, Orofino and Sweetwater plus staff that operate out of both Powell and Grangeville, all in Idaho. “The money we bring in is typically spent in those communities so it is a huge economic impact,” Johnson says. “The type of salaries they make are comparable to what they’d make with the federal government doing the same sort of thing.”

The annual budget is just over $20 million from 56 contracts with just over 80% of that coming from Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). “That’s huge!” Johnson commented. “It’s huge for Indian country.”

The program began in 1981-82 and has grown steadily. Approximately 60 biologists, or other class descriptions requiring a professional degree, are presently employed. Thirteen of those are tribal members and four of them have a Masters degree. All but one are Nez Perce members.

“We’re competing with federal agencies, state agencies, other tribes, for projects,” Johnson explained. Much of that competition is based on geography and it’s the projects within those historical tribal lands the tribe focuses on. “All the tribe’s country as defined by the Indian Claims Commission boundaries as being specifically Nez Perce country,” he said.

“I think the largest accomplishment is the whole entre of the tribes, all tribes, on salmon management, not just user based on traditional use, but as a manager, as one entity who can help restore those runs, help mange those runs,” Johnson said. “I think the Nez Perce really are leaders in this relative to other tribes in the Columbia River drainage,” but he adds that the Yakama Tribe is right up there as well with programs largely funded by BPA.

The tribe now manages the Kooskia Hatchery, co-manages Dworshak Hatchery, and operates the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery plus acclimation sites at Lookingglass in Oregon and other sites on the Clearwater and Snake Rivers. “We’re a strong leader in the management of all the salmon hatcheries, not just the ones we actually manage ourselves but the ones the state manages. We have a strong say-so in how they are being managed as well,” Johnson explains.

The tribe has particularly stepped up in the matter of restoring fisheries habitat. “The states aren’t as involved in restoration work. I’d say a third of the program’s budget goes to habitat restoration work. We’ve been shouldering a lot of the work,” he said.

The combination of good salaries and attractive nature of the work has created a highly skilled workforce with little turnover and become a major economic driver for the tribe and the region.