Natasha Brennan
McClatchy Northwest

Tribes from the Columbia Basin gathered at the historic Salmon and Orca Summit earlier this month to discuss preserving their way of life as salmon people and called on President Biden and Congressional leadership to join them in taking bold action.

The summit was hosted by the Nez Perce Tribe and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians on the Squaxin Island Tribe reservation northwest of Olympia July 7-8. It focused on U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson’s proposed Columbia Basin Initiative, an ambitious $33 billion proposal to remove four dams in the lower Snake River.

Gov. Jay Inslee, whose office created the Southern Resident Orca Task Force in 2018 but did not support Simpson’s proposal in May, said he is determined to work with other Pacific Northwest governors and Washington state congressional delegates in conjunction with tribal leadership on salmon recovery.

“We simply would not be where we are today on this issue without the Northwest tribes. I thank you for your generational commitment. I am fully committed to building on the progress that we’ve made together within a government-to-government framework. The work has never been more urgent, and it must continue,” he said.

As she welcomed tribal leaders to speak, Kayeloni Scott, communications manager for the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, said, “I just want you to keep in mind as these individuals come forward, it’s not one voice that they’re speaking for, but thousands. Not only are they representing themselves, but their tribal nations and those that cannot speak… The salmon and the orca.”

Status of extinction

Nez Perce Tribe Fisheries Department Manager Dave Johnson reported 42 percent of spring/summer Chinook salmon populations in the Snake River Basin are currently at or below the quasi-extinction threshold – meaning there are 50 fish or fewer on the spawning grounds for four consecutive years.

Johnson shared a decade’s worth of data following 32 populations of Snake River Basin salmon.

The Nez Perce Tribe has one of the largest fishing departments in the country, Johnson said. The department managed the return of two salmon species from the brink of extinction, but despite all their success, reported four of the five salmon species in the area are endangered. They once yielded over 2 million wild spring/summer Chinook salmon. This year they had around 6,000.

“It’s not for lack of trying or lack of ability to do things, we are very much a strong program, a strong tribe getting things done, but… we need help in a big way,” Johnson said during the event that was livestreamed.

FILE - In this March 3, 2020, file photo, Demian Ebert, the Klamath program manager for PacifiCorp, looks at a tank holding juvenile chinook salmon being raised at the Iron Gate Hatchery at the base of the Iron Gate Dam near Hornbrook, Calif. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus, File)

Johnson explained salmon that make it to the lower Snake River must get past four or more of the eight dams. Warming waters, pollution and inbreeding in the small spawning grounds and hatcheries threaten the environmentally sensitive fish. This means genetic diversity in the fish is extremely limited and environmental changes – like the recent heat wave or a sudden landslide along the river – can wipe out entire populations.

(Related: Water crisis reaches boiling point)

The monitored salmon populations have been declining by about 19 percent each year. By 2025, 77 percent of spring/summer Chinook salmon in the Snake River basin are predicted to be at or below quasi-extinction, numbers that foreshadow the future of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, he said.

“We’re certainly running out of management options. The probability of recovery is low, very low, without some substantial intervention,” Johnson said.

Native youth lead

“We are all one. We are all different tribes coming together to solve the same issue that we’ve been fighting for for generations and many years. We are not going to be the last here to talk about this and we’re definitely far from where we want to be,” said Keyen Singer, a 17-year-old representative of Oregon’s Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Youth Council.

Singer was one of many Pacific Northwest tribal youth leaders to sign a letter to President Biden demanding he take action in protecting the salmon. They are collecting signatures via a petition to support their letter and gain Biden’s attention.

“Our elders tell us about a time when no one in our tribe had to worry about whether we had enough fish to feed everyone. But today, there is less salmon and even their size is so much smaller than before. This is important,” Singer and other youth leaders from the Oregon tribe read.

The letter requests the president contact the group by July 30 to schedule a video call.

“Salmon aren’t just a food, they are part of our way of life. In our language we are ‘Wy-Kan-Ush-Pum’ (salmon people). “Wy-kan-ish” (salmon) are important for our sacred life renewal ceremonies, our daily food, and for our economy… They’re our relatives and losing them hurts… America made a deal and promised that we would be able to fish forever. We can’t fish if there aren’t any salmon left,” the youth leaders read.

Dams need to go

In February, Rep. Simpson, a Republican from Idaho, proposed The Columbia Basin Initiative to “end the salmon wars.” Funds would also go toward replacing the irrigation, power and transportation systems that rely on the dams.

“We came to the conclusion, and I firmly believe this, you are not going to restore the lower Snake River salmon runs… with the dams in place,” Simpson said.

Speakers at the summit said dams bottleneck salmon runs and keep them from reaching spawning grounds in the lower Snake River – the largest tributary of the Columbia River that also connects with the Pacific Ocean.

Despite having formal support from the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and the National Congress of American Indians, the proposal has yet to win over some Idaho Democrats and met strong opposition from state Republicans. Opponents cite the dams’ usage for barging, hydroelectricity and transporting agricultural goods as some of the top economic reasons to keep the dams in place. Even environmental groups have opposed the initiative.

But that didn’t stop the proposal from being the hot topic of the summit.

“Our future generations won’t care about the money we spend to fix this. This is not a money issue. It is a human issue,” Squaxin Island Tribe Chairman Kris Peters said.

Johnson, from the Nez Perce Tribe Fisheries, echoed that dam removal is the last effort to save the salmon runs, a main food supply for orca as well.

“The Southern Resident orcas of Puget Sound, being sacred to many Northwest tribes, are starving to death because culverts and dams that block and impair Chinook salmon migrations are limiting the orcas’ food source,” members of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians read from their resolution supporting the proposal.

Others discussed how dams impact the salmon from reaching tribes further inland that rely on salmon as a source of food and income.

“Some tribes have off-reservation treaty rights and some don’t. So for some of these folks, it’s important and essential to get salmon specifically to their country in order to have a harvest. That is something that Simpson’s initiative had the foresight to see,” Johnson said.

‘Salmon People’ unity

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe and president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, shared that all of their tribes are salmon people, whether they still harvest salmon or not.

In May, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians unanimously passed the resolution to support removing the four dams in the lower Snake River. Backed by the National Congress of American Indians, the resolution and the summit aim to unify native people in protecting the salmon from inching closer to extinction, like Plains tribes experienced with buffalo, one speaker said.

Tribes whose reservations have been more urbanized, like the Puyallup Tribe of Indians located in Tacoma, expressed their support for those tribes struggling.

“You might wonder why the Puyallup Tribe is here today. We are here to show you that we stand with you on this issue,” said chairwoman Sylvia Miller.

“The time for action is now,” said Willie Frank III, chairman of the Nisqually Indian Tribe. “We will face the extinction of our salmon, of our culture, of our people. We are salmon people and we are residents of the Pacific Northwest. We know we can find a comprehensive solution that will remove dams and build a stronger, more resilient northwest for all.”

“We as Indian people cannot succeed alone. Here we accomplish these goals as a function of our understanding and the addressing the needs of all people in the basin, Indian and non-Indian alike,” said the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Vice Chairman Jeremy Red Star Wolf.

Continuing the efforts

Organizers of the Salmon and Orca Summit invited every member of Congress from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, but were disappointed when only Rep. Simpson attended.

“We have been siloed a bit by the way our government is put together and we each have our own congressional districts and states and other regions that we work within… the Southern Resident killer whales, they don’t really look at the silos. They just go where the fish are. I think we need to take that holistic approach that they have adopted and pursued for the thousands of years that they’ve been here as well,” Forsman said.

The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, the National Congress of American Indians and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Youth Council each called on President Biden to address the issue of orca and salmon population degradation in their respective letters and resolutions.

Forsman and Scott said they hope the issue will be taken up in the nation’s capitol soon.

“A holistic approach must be taken to turn that tide and we can’t wait any longer. We have to take action now. We have to keep this fight against climate change. We have to control emissions and pollution. We have to protect our waterways, our rivers, our streams and our precious riparian zones,” Squaxin Island Tribe Chairman Peters said.

“We’re past the breaking point for our survival,” said state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, a member of the Tlingit tribe in Alaska who represents part of Bellingham and Whatcom County. “I cried with tribal leaders as they told me the salmon is gone… We all love the salmon, we need the salmon to sustain who we are.”

Closing the summit, Vice Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe Shannon Wheeler vowed to continue the summit and his tribe’s efforts.

“As we move forward across the nation bringing these issues to Washington, D.C., to President Biden, we will continue to speak for the salmon, for the lamprey, for the orca. It is the right thing to do, it is the necessary thing to do and we will be successful in recovering our salmon.”

Natasha Brennan covers Indigenous Affairs for Northwest McClatchy Newspapers. She’s a member of the Report for America corps. 

Bellingham Herald logo