This year is the 20th anniversary of Lonesome Larry’s return to Idaho’s Refish Lake. The sockeye salmon was the only one of his species known to have made the 800-mile trip from the ocean to the central Idaho lake. The solo journey helped jump start a multi-billion dollar effort to save Snake River salmon from certain extinction.
BOISE, Idaho — Lonesome Larry wasn’t a large salmon — in fact he was barely a foot long. Sockeye aren’t the largest species of salmon. An average, Chinook is typically twice that size or larger. But Lonesome Larry didn’t care, he swam — upriver past eight gigantic federal dams, up raging waterfalls and past countless natural predators. The journey means climbing nearly 6,500 vertical feet. He was the lone sockeye to complete the journey in 1992.
Rocky Barker wrote about Lonesome Larry recently in the Idaho Statesman — this year is the 20th anniversary of that journey from the ocean.
Barker explained, “Lonesome Larry 20 years ago was the last fish. One fish and maybe a couple more the next year.”
Today, more than a thousand sockeye make that same journey. Traveling tail first to the ocean as juveniles — exploring the Pacific Ocean for food before heading back to the very gravel beds where they were born deep in Idaho’s mountains.
Barbara Gudgel lives near Redfish Lake and often watches returning sockeye in the fall.
Gudgel said, “It’s amazing they know their way back. They come back home where they were born and raised. It’s just amazing. There is nothing in nature like it.”
Lonesome Larry is a reminder of the decline of Idaho’s salmon. Biologists believe two hundred years ago salmon were icons of abundance. Wesley Oatman, a member of the Nez Perce Indian Tribe says even his ancestors had a hard time describing the abundance.
Wesley Oatman said, “I can’t imagine putting a number on the amount of fish that were here at one time. I would say in the the ten to twenty million range. I know it is a multi-million fish industry at one time for us.”
Every summer, Wesley and his family continue their fishing heritage. He is fishing along the banks of Rapid River near Riggins, about three hours north of Boise. He uses a net attached to a long pole and scoops large Chinook Salmon from the river. Only tribal members are allowed to fish here — protected by treaty.
He said, “It’s what I do every year. I’ve been bred to do this you know. We’re a salmon people.”
By 1991, sockeye salmon in Idaho were practically gone. The annual returns were in the single digits. Everything changed that year, the federal government listed the sockeye salmon on the Endangered Species List. The government acted at the urging of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes.
Lonesome Larry appears in Outdoor Idaho’s ‘Idaho’s Salmon,’ produced by EarthFix’s Aaron Kunz:
Rocky Barker was a journalist covering the salmon in the early 1990s.
Barker said, “We all kind of all at once rediscovered this fish that really is such an icon for the whole region.”
Snake River chinook were also listed as threatened. That started an effort to save the salmon.
The cost of preserving salmon in the Northwest runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars every year. And it’s a project that won’t end anytime soon.
Bonneville Power Administration manages the power generated at the eight federal dams on the mainstem of the Columbia River and the lower Snake River. Because salmon are federally protected, BPA spends millions to help salmon recovery efforts.
Jason Sweet is a staff biologist for the BPA.
“Annually, it is close to $240 million a year for our overall program,” Sweet said.
The money pays for hatcheries to mitigate for the loss of salmon caused by dams. It helps pay for barging and trucking of juvenile salmon downriver so they avoid the hydroelectric turbines altogether. And it pays for habitat recovery that benefits returning adult salmon.
But some like Bert Bowler with Salmon Solutions — a salmon advocacy group says the real solution is tearing down the dams.
Bowler said, “If we are going to recover Snake River salmon and Steelhead, it’s going to require dam removal — period — and the science pretty much says that.”
Not every agrees with Bowler, hydropower provides sixty percent of the electricity in the Northwest.
Terry Flores with Northwest RiverPartners promotes the benefits of hydropower. She says hydropower in the Northwest cuts carbon emission in half over other parts of the country. Dams also provide affordable energy.
But the loss of salmon isn’t an option either. They are a keystone species, providing vital elements to a wide variety of plants and animals.
Tom Stuart, a lifelong fisherman, explains.
“But in Idaho our entire state has in fact been fertilized by ions of big salmon returning to Idaho to spawn and die and fertilize our watersheds and our landscapes,” he said.
This is not just important for Idaho but for many places like Washington and Oregon with rivers and streams.
Politically, finding a solution that benefits salmon has been slow. The creation of a federal salmon management plan has been tied up in court for two decades and continues at least until 2014. The issue of federal dam removal may rest on Congress. They funded the dams and are the only ones who can order them removed. That isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
In the meantime, salmon advocates worry that if we don’t do something soon. Salmon may fall victim to a changing climate. The future is anything but certain.
Congrats to David James for his winning submission, 'Annabella smelling the Balsam.'
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