Hollow regret is all we can offer to the species we've hustled off into extinction, from the clouds of passenger pigeons that once filled America's skies to the faintly ridiculous dodo birds of the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. If wild salmon and steelhead are to avoid the same fate, meaningful decisions must be made now.
Salmon aren't dodos. Superbly adapted to their environment, they thrived for thousands of years after the arrival of humans here in the Pacific Northwest. Even after the 19th century's decades of free-for-all harvesting, many Columbia-Snake salmon runs survived in numbers that make today's returns pale in comparison.
Thanks to relatively effective fish ladders and other expensive mitigation measures, even damming the Columbia hasn't proven fatal to the tough and tenacious salmon whose overriding biological imperative drives them upstream. No, it was the Snake River dams, the last four forced through the door before the nation wised up to the true costs of dams, that sent salmon into the downward spiral we witness today.
In a way, salmon don't require much. Give them clean, cold, strongly flowing rivers, decent places to lay their eggs, and they will survive. But these commonplace requirements are far from simple if humans instead choose to industrialize the Northwest's rivers with single-minded ferocity.
Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on Oct. 6 called for ripping out the Snake River dams. They argue that the billions spent on salmon recovery in recent years merely delay the inevitable, that without unimpeded waters in this crucial part of the Columbia watershed, salmon will slide into nothingness.
There are those who will jump up and point to the somewhat better runs of recent years as evidence that what we are already doing is working, that better ocean conditions and more human tinkering will give the future all the salmon anyone will desire.
They are wrong. Salmon teeter on a delicate fulcrum. A few years of drought or failure in the ocean upwelling will extinguish them.
Posterity will judge us not on how cheaply we produced electricity, or how efficiently we operated a barge system to Lewiston, Idaho. Ten generations from now, our descendants will admire us or deplore us for decisions today about whether salmon survive or perish.