The need to breach the Lower Snake River dams: A look at 2022 fish returns

Helen Neville

After a welcome improvement in ocean conditions, Snake River salmon and steelhead run numbers are a little higher this year. The fish are fighting to survive and demonstrating their remarkable resilience. But as we’ve seen too often, dam advocates are quick to exaggerate the slight uptick in an attempt to convince the public the failing status quo is working.

We can’t allow 2022’s run counts to lull us into a false sense of security or fall for disingenuous smoke and mirrors intentionally misrepresenting important biological and legal details. For these runs, the situation remains dire, and the science-based conclusion is that the four lower Snake River dams must be removed to ensure a future for wild salmon and steelhead.

A Far Cry from Goals

The fact is that salmon and steelhead returns in the Snake River Basin over the past five years have been among the lowest ever recorded. This year, some salmon and steelhead returning to the Snake River have shown small improvement, but only when lumping wild and hatchery fish counts together, and only when compared to terrible recent seasons.

These are critically important distinctions, because it is wild fish that provide the profound ecological diversity and evolutionary adaption that allowed them to thrive throughout the basin for eons before the dams were built – and that will ensure resilience for salmon and steelhead in a future without dams.

More pragmatically, it is wild fish that determine the legal obligations for recovery, mandated under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In the Snake River, Spring/Summer Chinook, Fall Chinook, and Steelhead are ESA listed as Threatened. The basin’s Sockeye Salmon are listed as Endangered, an even more severe indication of how fragile these populations are.

Today, none of these ESA listed species are anywhere near recovery goals. In some cases, wild salmon populations are hovering around 1-3% of historical run estimates. In the past five years, wild Snake River Spring/Summer Chinook numbers averaged less than half of their total return when the fish were first listed under the ESA in 1992 – a devastating benchmark. 

Make no mistake: these are populations on the brink. In 2021, Nez Perce Tribe fishery scientists reported that 42% of Snake River wild Spring/Summer Chinook populations had reached a “Quasi Extinction Threshold,” a measurement indicating a population was hovering at risk of blinking out. The same report indicated that 19% of Snake River steelhead populations were also below this threshold. According to the study, both are expected to continue declining in the basin unless substantial interventions are made to recover these populations. 

In the meantime, billions of dollars have been spent producing hatchery salmon and steelhead to prop up fisheries, as Congressionally mandated to mitigate the population losses caused by the dams, and it is not working to recover wild fish.

Free the Snake: The Way Forward 

Many factors contribute to any given year’s salmon and steelhead returns. Poor ocean conditions, drought, predation, and habitat degradation all combine to suppress populations. But the massive dams take a tremendous toll on anadromous species in the Snake River.

Scientific analysis has repeatedly pointed toward the negative impacts of how the dams impede juvenile and adult fish migration, heat the water to deadly temperatures, inundate 140 miles of mainstem spawning and rearing habitat, and provide ideal conditions for expanding populations of predators feasting on salmon and steelhead smolts.  

This year, Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Patty Murray’s report acknowledged the need to remove the four Snake River dams to recover Snake River runs. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a capstone report reviewing the decades of deep science on the issue. It also came to the exact same conclusion, one that U.S. Congressman Simpson (R-Idaho) noted in his 2021 plan: reaching recovery goals for our salmon and steelhead requires a broad suite of actions, but restoration of the lower Snake River through dam breaching is the essential component. 

The science-based consensus is established, and the way forward is clear. Current numbers are a sharp reminder of the pressing need to restore these populations before it is too late. These species, and the communities that depend upon them, are running out of time. The four Lower Snake River Dams must be removed to save them.

Helen Neville is senior scientist for Trout Unlimited. She is based in Boise.

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Idaho State Council Meeting

Fall meeting of the Idaho State Council of Trout Unlimited

Nature Conservancy Silver Creek Preserve

Oct 22, 2022 at 8:30 AM (MDT)

Bellevue, Idaho

Draft Agenda (9-28-22) Fall Council Meeting

Nature Conservancy Silver Creek Preserve Hailey, ID

Saturday October 22, 2022
8:30 a.m. Meet for Coffee/Juice Socialize 

8:45 a.m. Welcome and Comments by Lou Lunte. TNC Manager 9:00 Introductions / Roll Call /Review Agenda 

9:15 a.m. Business Meeting Review Agenda and Handouts Discuss Contact List and Distribution Lists: Council – All, Council – Executive Committee , TU Staff Review and Approval of Spring 2022 Council Meeting Minutes Treasurer’s Report & Budget Discussion Membership Fee Remittance to chapters – amounts paid , checks distributed Election: Chair: Matt Woodard, Open Positions: VP (chair elect) secretary Date/Location for Spring 2023 Council Meeting NLC Report – 15 minutes Strategic Planning, Leadership Development & Recruitment Potential Bylaw Revisions – Update Chapter Reports (optional): follow chapter review for rechartering criteria used in 2021. Focus on most significant accomplishments &/or challenges. 

10:00 Break 

Trout Unlimited Staff Reports and Presentations 
10:15 Michael Gibson – Sportsman Conservation Issues/Legislation at 2023 Legislative Session/Camo at the Capital Training, Education, Orientation and Resources for Chapter/Council Leaders

10:45 Maggie Heuman 

12:15 Lunch 

1:00 Resume Business Meeting 

2:30 Break 

3:30 Resume Business Meeting 

4:30 Adjourn (can go until 5 o’clock if needed)

Rep. Muffy Davis checking out the new casting platform at Silver Creek with assistance from Silver Creek Outfitters guide Mark Milkovich. Trout Unlimited, among many others, was a donor to this worthy project.
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Trout Unlimited comments on Cat Creek Energy LLC’s proposed water storage project

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Internship Experience – Harrison Marshall

As I look back on my experience as an intern for Trout Unlimited, I can not help but think about how I ended up in the position to work for such an amazing organization. I grew up in San Francisco, hundreds of miles away from the pristine rivers, mountains and wilderness areas that make up Idaho. But as the grandson of a rancher in Northern California and the son of two avid outdoor sports enthusiasts, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by a family who fostered a love for the outdoors and emphasized the importance of protecting it. Even though I was exposed to so many aspects of the outdoors, these areas that TU and other leading conservation organizations fight to conserve still seemed so far away.  

2022 Summer Interns – Left Manuel Ellenwood/Right Harrison Marshall

I moved to Idaho during the summer of 2016 and was immediately enamored with my surroundings. Living in such proximity to Silver Creek, one of the most beautiful and untouched trout fisheries in the United States, conservation and proper resource and land stewardship finally became tangible. Through skiing, hunting, angling, and working with livestock, the environmental issues that contribute most to climate change became evident in my everyday life. I had always been acutely aware of climate change, but now I got to see its impact on the place I had fallen in love with, the place I now called home. It was around this time when I made the decision to dedicate my career towards protecting these wild places, the very same places that had provided me with so much joy and happiness over the years.  

When I began my internship with Trout Unlimited towards the end of June, I genuinely did not have much of an idea of what to expect. The summer before, I had an internship with The Nature Conservancy where I performed mostly manual labor. Was this new opportunity going to follow along similar lines? I did not know what I was getting myself into. On my first day, my first task was to join a call regarding the Cat Creek Reservoir Project, a proposed hydropower and water storage project outside of Mountain Home, Idaho. TU is protesting the water rights applications associated with the project. After the call, I was given several long documents to read to familiarize myself with the project’s ins and outs. With such a steep learning curve, I quickly came to realize that Trout Unlimited had geared this internship towards learning. During the onboarding process, I had been asked which aspects of conservation I was interested in, and it became clear that my eight-week internship was tailored specifically to my interests and aspirations. In the first few weeks, I worked predominantly in environmental policy as well as writing an application for a grant that would provide TU’s Ted Trueblood Chapter, based in Boise, with more rods, reels and other angling gear to expand the youth and community outreach programs. I had already learned so much more than I thought possible and could not wait for what the rest of my time with TU would hold.  

Harrison Marshall meets members of the Ted Trueblood Chapter Board

There have been so many highlights over the course of this internship that it is hard to pick favorites. As someone who loves to learn, especially when it comes to things that are applicable to my life and career aspirations, I have found enjoyment in each day of work. If I had to choose, my favorite moments and tasks would be my work on the Cat Creek Reservoir Project, the Trout Unlimited Next Generation Gear Grant, and the several meetings with established TU staff.  

The Cat Creek Reservoir Project is the proposed construction of a new 100,000 acre-foot reservoir outside of Mountain Home, Idaho. I started my internship during the time that TU and the other protestants of the project were commenting on the Pre-Application Document (PAD) and Scoping Document 1 (SD1). These documents are essentially the outline of the project presented by Cat Creek Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), respectively. In reading through the PAD and SD1, I was able to not only achieve a firm grasp of the size, scale and specifics of the proposed project, I was able to develop such a deep understanding of what the flaws and inconsistencies were. I was tasked with synthesizing comments made by others within TU into a coherent and easily read document. This document was then used as part of TU’s official comments on the project. I had never seen my words included in a document that carried so much weight, and that experience was incredibly rewarding.  

Harrison meets with Alayne Bickell of Horses for Clean Water in Nampa, Idaho

The Ted Trueblood Chapter of Trout Unlimited did not receive the TU Next Generation Gear Grant, but the experience of writing the proposal was still a valuable one. I had the opportunity to speak with members of the board and staff to learn more about why the chapter’s youth and community outreach programs were so successful and how they could be improved. Even though we were not awarded the grant, I learned how to market the chapter, gained experience writing grant proposals, and developed relationships with people who have dedicated their lives to protecting Idaho’s fisheries.  

Among the several meetings I had with Trout Unlimited staff and individuals working for adjacent and like-minded organizations, the two that stand out are the conversations with Beverly Smith and Chris Wood. Beverly Smith, vice president for volunteer operations for TU National, talked about how she always let her passion for her work and for those that worked with her be her motivation. For years, Beverly has worked long hours with very little time off, but it does not matter to her because she genuinely cares about and believes in the work she was doing. Chris Wood, President and Chief Executive Officer of Trout Unlimited, is one of the most passionate and insightful people I have had the pleasure of speaking with. He talked about making connections and building relationships with people, not just the places we are trying to protect, in order to achieve our goals. To Beverly, Chris, and everyone else who took the time to speak with me, thank you so much.  

As I finish up the last week or so of this internship and my time with Trout Unlimited comes to a close, I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the most driven and passionate people I have ever met. The feeling is bittersweet; I am sad to be leaving but, at the same time, so thankful for the opportunities provided and the lessons learned. To Kira Finkler, Ashlynn Goody, Dan Dauwalter, Chris Wood, and everyone else who made this experience possible, thank you.  

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Internship Experience – Manuel Ellenwood

My name is Manuel Ellenwood; I’m a part of the Nez Perce Tribe and I was an intern for Trout Unlimited for eight weeks during the summer. My experience should be different from others because I worked out in Lewiston while most others worked out of the Boise office, so I worked independently. I didn’t mind having quiet time working since that’s how I’m most productive and sometimes comfortable.

Manuel Ellenwood visits Boise

What I’ve learned.

Although growing up in Lapwai and being a tribal member, I feel like I may not always know what the tribe is working on throughout the region. So, the first thing I learned through this internship came from my own tribe, which is that they would like to breach the lower four dams, the same as TU. The tribe has already taken steps in that direction; they have committed to getting solar panels to soon contribute to replacing the power that the dams provide.

Manuel’s first day on the job – touring Lower Granite Dam

My favorite part(s).

I have had tons of favorite parts during my time as an intern, but I think the most rewarding out of my day was interviewing people. It was great to see people love what they do everyday and get to talk about it. One thing for me is that I want to be passionate about my job and not have to despise going into work. I’ve gotten a great sense of my opportunities as a career talking to all of these people.

Something surprising.

Something I’ve found surprising is being able to meet and interview the president of TU. I just think TU is this huge place filled with so many diverse people and I’m a little intern from Lapwai, ID. I was definitely shocked when I was told I could interview him. Early on in my internship I watched some videos with him speaking on different topics, read some blog posts he had written and heard from others how great he is so I thought he just seemed really cool and great to meet for myself.

Manuel interviewing Idaho Water Resources Board member Jo Ann Cole-Hansen

Something I didn’t like.

Everything was great, honestly, but the one thing I didn’t like I actually had the power to change! Kira and Ashlynn, whom I reported to, were both generous enough to let me work on my own time and I chose 8-4. One thing about me is that I’m not a morning person. Luckily, they were very understanding people. They offered to let me work from home on occasion or if I woke up early enough, I could do work and then I could get off earlier. The flexibility offered in this internship made my summer plans possible

Manuel & Harrison after spending the day at the Silver Creek Preserve in Picabo, ID
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Restoring large wood in Central Idaho – a preview


By Ashlynn Goody and Cassi Wood 

We are thrilled to announce that The North American Journal of Fisheries Management will soon publish an article co-authored by Cassi Wood, our Central Idaho Project Manager.  Cassi and Jim Gregory, a longtime Trout Unlimited (TU) consultant, recently presented their research at the Annual Meeting of the Idaho Chapter of the American Fisheries Society.   

Cassi Wood & Jim Gregory presenting their research before the Idaho Chapter of the American Fisheries Society.

This study focuses on the Yankee Fork, a river that flows approximately 28 miles from its headwaters in the Salmon River Mountains to its confluence with the Salmon River. The study area is 7.5 miles long, beginning at the confluence with Eightmile Creek and ending at the mouth of Jordan Creek. The Yankee Fork was an easy selection for study; Cassi has been working with partners to restore the Yankee Fork from mining and timber harvest for nearly a decade. 

Unanchored pieces of large wood, placed to mimic an avalanche.

Upon visiting the Yankee Fork in my first week at TU, it’s easy to see why someone would want to dedicate ten years of work to this area. Reconstructing just one mile of the badly damaged river required removal of more than 100,000 cubic yards of dredge tailings; tall rows of piled rock which have confined more than 6 miles of the river to a flume-like channel since the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge finished mining it in 1952. For reference, your average dump truck can only haul 15 cubic yards. That’s over 6,600 dump trucks! It’s hard to imagine how large and impactful these dredge tailings are until you’re standing near one as it hovers a good 10 to 15 feet above you. If the piles of rock that stretch on for miles weren’t enough of an insult, an even larger portion of the watershed was harvested for timber right to the river’s edge to support the mining boom of the late 1800’s. Relocating the dredge piles is regrettably only a portion of the work needed to restore this area. Large wood, now missing from the upper reaches of the river, must be added back in order to create a healthy habitat for fish. Wood in the stream does more than just provide shelter over the heads of our underwater friends; it slows the water they swim in, sorts the gravel they spawn in, and feeds the insects they eat. Without large wood, rivers become sterile and inhospitable for fish.  

A bull trout using wood for cover in the Yankee Fork. 
The Bonanza Project section of the Yankee Fork. Some dredge tailings remain to the left of the re-constructed river. 

The upcoming article will share details of the authors’ research using large wood restoration techniques in the upper Yankee Fork that mimic nature. Their work contrasts with the use of highly engineered log structures, commonplace in the realm of river restoration. Those buried and anchored logs, sometimes even bolted together, are intended for places that cannot risk damage to downstream structures like bridges. But wood that cannot move in concert with the dynamics of an otherwise healthily changing stream can cause more harm than good… and cost a lot of money to construct. Cassi and her partner researchers restored wood to the stream by adding loose trees and logs to the upper Yankee Fork, where risk to downstream structures was low. The project simulated the natural processes of wood recruitment that create healthy rivers. Chiefly, from fallen timber, avalanches, and creek ‘blow-outs’. Next, they evaluated how much of the loose wood in the stream might naturally move over time.  

A map of the project area.

For the study, twenty of the added pieces of large wood were implanted with radio tags and tracked each summer for five years (2015–2019). In 2017, the Yankee Fork experienced a 25-year spring run-off event. The results of the author’s research show that in rivers like the upper Yankee Fork, unanchored large wood moves only very short distances downstream, even during very high flows. The results also show that the total amount of large wood restored to the study area did not decrease over time.  

This research was a huge success; it confirms there are streams where large wood can be restored at a lower cost and in ways that compliment natural rivers, which opens more possibilities for future restoration across the west. This work, part of the collection of restoration projects by Cassi and her partners, is yet another example of TU’s commitment towards ensuring that high quality critical habitat is ready to bring home the numbers of salmon and steelhead that Idaho deserves. 

Tracking tagged wood movement.

TU & partners working to restore large wood in the Yankee Fork.

This research was funded by the US Bureau of Reclamation, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, TU, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service.  TU sincerely appreciates the US Forest Service’s Helitack crew, who installed the helicopter-placed trees, and to Boyd Foster Backhoe Service, who installed the trackhoe-placed trees. Numerous technicians from the Salmon-Challis National Forest assisted with the installation of saw-cut trees, logistics, and assessment. 

We can’t wait to share the full copy of the article with you once it is published and available to the public. 

For specific questions regarding this article, please contact Cassi Wood at

Ashlynn Goody is the Policy and Outreach associate for Trout Unlimited’s Idaho Water and Habitat Program.  Ashlynn works out of TU’s Boise office. Cassi Wood is a Project Manager for Trout Unlimited’s Idaho Water and Habitat Program. Cassi works in the field of Central Idaho’s beautiful landscape. 

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Trout Unlimited CEO Chris Wood in Boise April 28

Chris Wood speaks at the Andrus Center conference on salmon in April 2019

The Idaho State Council of Trout Unlimited invites you to join Chris Wood, Trout Unlimited CEO, for a discussion on the path forward to remove the lower four Snake River dams and recover wild salmon and steelhead.This Boise event will be April 28th at 6:30 PM – at the Riverside Hotel on Chinden Blvd. in Garden City.

Our Idaho State Council meeting will follow on Friday April 29 at the Riverside Hotel.

Please consider attending the April 28 event with Chris Wood. You can RSVP at

The Snake River Basin provides more than 50 percent of the coldwater habitat available to Pacific salmon and steelhead in the Lower 48. But these critical waters are blocked by the four lower Snake River dams and fish populations are in rapid decline. 

We have spent four decades and $17 billion trying to recover these iconic fish. It’s time that we rethink the future of the Northwest. 

The Northwest deserves abundant and sustainable Snake River wild salmon and steelhead. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure that future exists.  

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Turning a River Right – Prichard Creek

The Coeur d’Alene Project Manager, Erin Plue, is excited for the upcoming restoration of Prichard Creek which feeds into the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. This project is highly anticipated by local stakeholders and fisheries managers. This waterbody was the site of numerous hard rock mines, immense hydraulic mining, and an in-stream dredge that turned over five miles of the valley in the early 1900’s. Even with the destruction of this waterbody, westslope cutthroat trout still pile up at Prichard because of the cold water, but at about four miles up the stream they are blocked from reaching ten more miles of cold water refuge in the summer by subsurface flows due to the impact of the placer dredge mining.

Prichard Creek is currently owned by a private lumber company, Idaho Forest Group (IFG), who is putting about 10.5 miles of the 14-mile stream into a conservation easement. Funding for the investigations, planning, and construction is coming from a local fund comprised of mining settlement money and managed by the Restoration Partnership, with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality serving as the fiscal sponsor for the project. Trout Unlimited is managing the project with significant involvement from IFG.

The first phase of the project is underway with multiple consultants currently studying the geomorphology, biology, cultural history of the project area. Currently a multi-phased restoration plan is being developed and design for the first phase of construction is almost complete. The first phase of construction entails four sections of the bottom four miles of stream. Implementation of Phase 1 construction will begin the summer of 2022 and aims to be completed in 2023.

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How the Infrastructure Bill is good for Trout

Check out this video of Laura Ziemer summarizing the many things in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that will be good for trout, salmon and watersheds. Her presentation starts at about eleven minutes into the video and it should be cued up at that point.

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Matt Green Awarded Aquatic Habitat Award

Trout Unlimited lies deep in the fishing culture throughout the United States. We are one of many organizations that’s mission involves bettering the streams and rivers of America. Every day, we work with partners from our hometowns, from across the country, and throughout the state. The American Fisheries Society (AFS) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the conservation and sustainability of fishery resources and aquatic ecosystems by advancing fisheries and aquatic science and promoting the development of fisheries professionals.  

Within our amazing conservation staff at Trout Unlimited, we have truly knowledgeable, dedicated, and passionate people who are committed to their home waters. Matthew Green is among one of these TU staffers; Matt was honored by The American Fisheries Society, Idaho Chapter with the 2022 Aquatic Habitat Award earlier this month (March 2022). The Aquatic Habitat Award strives to recognize significant or innovative work performed by AFS members. The project, which recognizes involvement, commitment, and collaboration from the landowner of Beyeler Ranch, Trout Unlimited, Lost River Fish Ecology LLC, Bureau of Reclamation, Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Program, and The Governer’s Office of Species Conservation was completed in late 2021. To me, it says a lot that one of our partners in restoration in the Upper Salmon River Basin nominated Matt for this award. Together, we get great work done that improves our rivers and streams.  

During the project, the teams worked together to ensure habitat complexity and abundance, floodplain connectivity, and improvement of riparian conditions for spring chinook salmon on private property owned and operated as a working cattle ranch by Beyeler Ranch in the Upper Lemhi Valley of Central Idaho. The project is one of many completed on this ranch over the last twelve years. The landowner has a history of salmon restoration which began with constructing a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy back in 2010. This particular project covers a 3,800-foot stretch of river that had an oversized channel, with little cover habitat. The streams pace was too consistent for positive fish habitat prior to completion of the project, with too few pools and riffles.  

One of the greatest challenges in this project was to complete the work without disrupting any existing spawning. The landowner also challenged the designer to complete designs that were minimally invasive. To the designers, this meant developing new wood and willow-based structures with little to no excavation required, as well as structures that helped develop forms and processes with chutes, pools, water backed up into floodplains, and riffles as would be expected when beavers (one of the main disturbances and, therefore habitat creators) were present. This project was the ultimate design of promoting natural channel processes and habitat development while challenging the implementation. 

Ultimately, twelve habitat specific treatments were designed and built including a large meander structure made of an assortment of log sizes and willow clumps that required no excavation. Another innovative structure was a “deflector” made to mimic an old, densely rooted willow clump with substantial erosion resistance. When used across from one another, they develop a chute that scours the bed and sorts the sediments in riffle crests suitable for spawning. Channel spanning wood jams were used to back water up and scour beneath them to re-deposit sediments immediately downstream for spawning grounds. The backwater from enhanced areas of channel spanners also helped form loosely stage-zero-like areas with low velocities and dense cover. 

In the end, the project blends well into the natural landscape of the ranch. We cannot wait to watch this develop into more complex habitat over the next few years. Congratulations to Matthew Green and the team of sponsors and supporters for your hard work and dedication to Idaho’s waters.  

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