‘Salmon Wars’ episode 5: The crime

By Tony Schick (OPB) and Julie Sabatier (OPB)
April 10, 2024 1 p.m.
The salmon viewing area at the Bonneville Lock and Dam, August 2021.

The salmon viewing area at the Bonneville Lock and Dam, August 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


The “Salmon Wars” podcast series tells the story of salmon in the Northwest in a way you haven’t heard before — through the voices of one Yakama Nation family who have been fighting for salmon for generations.

Salmon have been on the decline for more than 100 years. The federal government knows why. It knows who killed the salmon, and how. But for decades it’s been telling a tale of progress, and obscuring the ugliest truth. We’re going to uncover it.

Our theme music is by Kele Goodwin and Sean Ogilvie.

Special thanks to Katie Campbell and Sarah Blustain at ProPublica.


Heather Monti: If anyone’s curious, we have a friend here from OPB today who’s recording my voice for a podcast.

Tony Schick: Army Corps of Engineers Park Ranger Heather Monti is talking to a group of fifth graders on a field trip to the Bonneville Dam and Visitor Center. They’re here to learn about salmon.

HM: It’s a very hard life for a salmon. They have a lot of obstacles they face. So, a lot of challenges for survival and that’s what we’re gonna look at today.

TS: The students are in a building at the lower level of the dam, seated on benches that face underwater windows that offer a glimpse of salmon in the river. In front of the windows sits a poster labeled “Salmon Survival Pyramid.” Monti talks through the early stages of life for a baby salmon until they get big enough to start heading down the Columbia River toward the ocean.

HM: They’re on their way to the ocean, but eventually they’re going to bump into a big, old concrete slab called Bonneville Dam. Now what do they do? How are they gonna get past the dam? We have a few ways that I’ll show you.

TS: She explains that baby salmon are small enough to make it safely through the dam’s spillway for overflow water. Some go through a bypass pipe.

HM: And it’s sort of like a big water slide for the fish. You could see that one going whee! It’s making its way safely past the dam.

TS: The kids push closer to the windows. This is where people count the adult salmon, who are swimming back upriver through the dam.

HM: Now, as they’re making their way up the Columbia River from the ocean, it takes them about two weeks to reach Bonneville Dam. And now what are they gonna do? Can they swim back through the spillway? Probably not. That’s really strong water. So behind me here, what is that? The fish ladder! Yeah.

TS: The fish ladder is a series of giant concrete steps full of rushing water. From below, the fish ladder just looks like a pond. From above, it looks more like a log flume.

HM: It gets them up a little higher with each step. And the reason for that is because the water behind the dam is about 60 feet higher than the water below the dam.

TS: Thinking about salmon playing a giant game of chutes and ladders makes it easy to lose sight of what’s really happening here. In the case of the salmon dying, this is a crime scene. Only, the crime hasn’t stopped. Monti tells the kids that salmon lay a lot of eggs: 3,000. But only two of those will make it back to spawn.

HM: So, why is that? Why are so many of the fish dying? I’m gonna tell ya.

TS: In the nicest terms possible, these kids will learn that their everyday lives can harm salmon. But in the same breath, they’ll learn that we’ve come such a long way in making things better for them.

HM: Now, over the years, we collectively, people, have learned, we’ve learned a lot about how to best help the salmon.

TS: If that’s the case, though, why are so many of the fish still dying? This is how history gets whitewashed. It’s the same kind of thing I learned in school. Monti’s doing her best to teach these students about salmon. But when federal agencies like the Army Corps develop curriculum for kids, the official version doesn’t include the ways the government has harmed Native people. It doesn’t include the ways they fought in court against changes to the dam system that could help the fish. For decades, the government has been telling a story of unmitigated progress, about how it harnessed the rivers and dedicated its efforts to saving the salmon. It’s been obscuring the ugliest truth about who killed the salmon, and how it happened. This is “Salmon Wars.” I’m Tony Schick.


TS: We begin our investigation of who killed the salmon here, at Bonneville dam, because this is the origin of one of our most prominent, obvious culprits. BPA — the Bonneville Power Administration

BPA video: At BPA, we do more than just keep the lights on. We balance the grid, so they never go out.

TS: Most people outside the Northwest probably haven’t heard of it. But within the Northwest, and the life of a salmon, Bonneville looms large. The federal agency was created in the 1930s to sell hydropower generated from the Bonneville Dam. Today, it sells power from 31 different dams. Its annual revenues are near $4 billion. It owns about three-quarters of the electrical grid that delivers our power in the Northwest. So, if you plug something into an electrical socket in Oregon, Washington or Idaho, the odds are good Bonneville’s involved. No agency has a bigger impact on salmon. Because in the ‘80s, Congress put Bonneville in charge of funding recovery efforts with the revenue from its dams. But ever since Bonneville’s creation, Congress also told it to operate like a business. And its business kills fish. The agency actually publicizes every year an estimate of how much money it doesn’t make because of scaling back hydropower operations to kill fewer salmon. You might be confused why exactly the hydropower business kills fish, because earlier we told you baby salmon can just whoosh past the dams on a super fun water slide.

Heather Monti: Whee!

TS: But it’s not that simple. For one thing, not all the fish make it. The unlucky ones still end up thrashed by the spinning turbines that make hydroelectricity. And the fish ladders can get too hot for salmon swimming back upriver, stressing or killing fish. And more importantly, the number of fish actually killed at the dam, that’s only a fraction of the impact dams have had. More on that in a minute.

Anything involving dam policy gets complicated fast, because there are so many players involved: The Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation operate them along with Bonneville. And NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is the agency in charge of making sure those dam operations don’t jeopardize salmon. These government agencies often publicize what they’ve achieved for salmon. They boast that around 95 percent of migrating salmon now survive their encounters at each dam, like in this video, produced by Bonneville

BPA video: The efforts are paying off with safer dam passage for juvenile fish. Showing it is possible for the Northwest to enjoy clean, reliable hydropower and still be friendly to the environment.

TS: The video cuts to an interview with NOAA’s Ritchie Graves, who oversees the impacts of hydropower on salmon.

Ritchie Graves: There have been a number of improvements to the system. Unquestionably, it’s better than it was. We’re getting there.

TS: Here’s what those federal agencies don’t make a point of telling their constituents — you and me. For all the improvements, many of the key indicators of how salmon fare in the Columbia have barely changed since the fish were first listed as endangered in the 1990s. That’s according to an analysis I and other journalists at OPB and ProPublica have done. The water behind a dam is more like a lake than a river. That can mess with salmon’s migration instincts and leave them vulnerable to birds and other predators. So, we looked at how quickly water moves through the dam system. It hasn’t improved. It’s slower — worse for salmon — than some years in the 1990s.

And we looked at yearly river temperatures. If they’re too warm, they can kill salmon or hurt their ability to reproduce. Nearly 10 years ago, the Fish Passage Center, a small federal scientific agency that publishes reports about the dam system, called rising temperatures “a long-recognized problem that to date remains largely unmitigated.” That’s still the case.

We also looked at the number of salmon that survive to adulthood. There are parts of the Columbia Basin where fish only have to pass three dams, and parts of it where they pass as many as eight. Salmon survival is three or four times higher where there are fewer dams.

Randy Settler: Man’s actions by creating this manmade environment the salmon must now travel through, how it’s diminished, how it’s affected their ecology, it can’t be measured.

TS: Remember in earlier episodes, we talked about how Randy Settler inherited his parents’ fight for salmon? Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that meant serving on tribal council, the government of the Yakama Nation. And the dams occupied a lot of his time.

RS: And when we share that with these elected officials, and we tell them, you’ll never be able to compensate for the losses that have been incurred.


TS: Randy testified before Congress in May of 2000, and told them the United States is not living up to its commitments in the Treaty of 1855 — the treaty that granted the United States millions of acres of land, and preserved the tribe’s right to their usual and accustomed fishing. He advocated for the removal of some dams, including four on the Snake River that are still hotly debated today. And he argued, publicly and often, with Bonneville. Tribes have a fraught relationship with the agency. It’s where they get most of their funding for salmon restoration. But the funding is never enough. And they’re in a never-ending tug-of-war over dam operations. On the other end of the rope, behind Bonneville, are dozens of electric utilities along with farmers, irrigators and barge operators who want to preserve the status quo of dam operations. Their lobbying group, Northwest RiverPartners, has spent millions of dollars arguing in favor of the dams, with advertisements like this one:

Northwest RiverPartners ad: In the Northwest, Hydropower makes 90% of our renewable, carbon-free power. Our power is renewable and deeply rooted in our home. Our power is abundant and reliable. Our power supports other renewable energies. Our power fights climate change. Our power is water.

TS: Fish benefit when more water is allowed to flow past the dam in what’s called a spillway. But every drop that’s spilled is less energy for Bonneville to sell. Scientists have been saying for years that salmon recovery requires breaching four dams on the Snake River to let that stretch of river run free. It also requires spilling as much water as possible past the dams on the main Columbia, so that it runs just a bit more like a free flowing river. I asked Doug Johnson, a spokesman for Bonneville, why the agency has resisted these steps.

Doug Johnson: The fact that you’ve got clean energy created by water is not a bad thing as we continue to face mounting impacts of climate change.

TS: The sentiment is often repeated by other dam proponents: Removing the dams is counterproductive, because they’re clean energy, and the biggest threat to salmon is climate change. On the global scale, though, Oregon and Washington account for less than a half of one percent of greenhouse gasses. When I looked at government studies of this, I found their share is projected to shrink further in the next 10 years, with or without the dams. On a more local scale, a study from several state and federal salmon biologists in 2022 predicted that breaching the Snake River dams would prevent extinction. The river once accounted for nearly half of all fish in the Columbia Basin. In other words: Changes to Columbia River dams barely register when it comes to climate change, but they can be monumental for salmon.


TS: Salmon advocates have repeatedly sued the federal government over its dam operations. Multiple federal judges have said the dam system “cries out” for a new approach.

Crystal Ligori: “For more than 20 years, however, the federal agencies have ignored these admonishments and have continued to focus essentially on the same approach to saving the listed species.”

TS: This is from a 2018 ruling from Judge Michael Simon, read by my colleague, Crystal Ligori.

CL: “These efforts have already cost billions of dollars, yet they are failing. Many populations of the listed species continue to be in a perilous state.”

TS: This brings us to another culprit: NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — the very agency in charge of endangered species protections for salmon. It also played a part in their disappearance. You remember NOAA’s Fisheries Department. Its first director, Spencer Baird, said we could make up for overfishing and habitat destruction by just mass producing more fish in hatcheries. Many, many years later, NOAA biologists approved the Columbia River dam operations that kill fish. They approved them again and again, even after the plans kept getting rejected in court. NOAA justified those decisions in large part because Bonneville and the Army Corps promised to pay for habitat improvements on smaller rivers and streams that feed into the Columbia. There was some logic to that. Because dams were hardly alone in killing salmon. And this is where our list of culprits becomes rather lengthy. Randy knows.

Randy Settler: Industrial farms, logging, road building, mining, industrial activities, military activities, societal activities in general.

TS: Let’s look into each one. To do that, we’ll need help from the forensics team.

When I did some reporting on Columbia River pollution, I was surprised that nobody had really done any testing to see what chemicals were in adult salmon swimming upriver, not since the Environmental Protection Agency did it in the 1990s. The EPA testing led Oregon, and eventually Washington, to adopt the strictest water quality standards in the country. One big goal was protecting tribal health. But, there’s no evidence EPA or state regulators ever enforced those standards. And they do so little monitoring now, they can’t even say whether pollution is getting better or worse in the Columbia River. EPA officials openly acknowledge this as a problem. Staff told me that the EPA has always been on the sidelines in salmon recovery, since it’s not part of the dams discussion. Staff also told me they’ve never gotten near enough money or support from Congress to do the work they know is necessary.

Mary Lou Soscia: Nobody wanted to pay attention to toxics. And so we don’t really understand that much about it, but there are small amounts of studies that give us, like, those yellow blinking lights

TS: Mary Lou Soscia was the EPA’s Columbia River coordinator for decades. She retired in 2023.

MS: It’s something we have to be really, really concerned about.

TS: So, I thought, why don’t I do the testing? I drove up and down the river collecting salmon. If you don’t believe me, you can smell my car.

TS (on tape): It’s Friday, August 27th at the Bridge of the Gods, Cascade Locks. I’m gonna chat with some folks about selling salmon

TS: I bought 50 total salmon from Native fishermen along the river.

Fish seller: These were caught, oh, about 10 miles up river.

TS: I gutted and cleaned the fish, chopped them up so they’d fit into coolers. And then I dropped them off at a commercial laboratory to test them for heavy metals and other chemicals. The lab results came back showing mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls and dioxins in their bodies. This is pollution coming from factories, city wastewater and old toxic waste sites the EPA still hasn’t cleaned up. Before we go further, I’ll tell you the toxic levels were low enough that the average person doesn’t need to worry about their next bite of grilled salmon.

Wild salmon is still one of the healthiest foods you can eat. But the pollution does put an unequal burden on Columbia River tribes, because they eat so much fish compared to the rest of us. Trace amounts of toxics add up. As for what this means for the salmon, scientists say it stresses their bodies and makes it harder for them to survive and reproduce.

Catherine Corbett: These contaminants can harm salmon’s ability to feed, to escape predators, to survive their transition to the ocean, and to survive during their time in the ocean.

TS: Catherine Corbett is chief scientist for the Columbia Estuary Partnership, which has studied how baby salmon were absorbing chemicals.

CC: Chemical contaminants can impair the immune system of salmon or disrupt their hormones, making them more susceptible to diseases or parasites.

TS: And those salmon are swimming in water that’s too hot for them, meaning their bodies are already at a higher risk for diseases and parasites. This brings us to two more culprits: timber companies and industrial farms. They can affect salmon in many ways, like runoff of fertilizer and pesticides. But perhaps most notably, they’ve damaged habitat by stripping away the trees that shade streams, causing unnaturally warm water. And of course, the very cities and roads where we live have done the same. Land developers severed rivers from their natural floodplains and paved over places where salmon spawn.

It’s true that laws protecting streams have generally gotten stronger over the years. But government regulators keep a list of waters they consider so polluted they’re “impaired,” and the list of impaired waters in Oregon alone — and the many ways they’re each impaired — is still way too long for me to read to you. And this, this brings us back to a plan I mentioned earlier — a plan that connects our many culprits. It starts with NOAA, the agency charged with protecting endangered salmon. Dam operators like Bonneville, the Army Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation need NOAA’s approval to operate the dams. NOAA gave that approval, but one of the biggest justifications for it was a condition that Bonneville and others would spend money to fix up salmon habitats. So, the approval for the dams hinged on undoing the damage from industry, farmers, developers, all those other culprits.


BPA video: From the hundreds of fish habitat improvement projects in the Northwest.

TS: And federal officials won’t hesitate to tell you they’ve spent A LOT of money. Glossy government reports will tell you miles upon miles of streams have been “restored.”

BPA video: Every year, millions of dollars are spent on the ground improving streams, rivers and wetlands.

TS: According to researchers from Oregon State University, we’ve spent around $9 billion on salmon restoration. Some of that’s spent on hatcheries. Most of it’s spent on monitoring, planning and habitat restoration. The money came from taxes and electricity bills in the Northwest. You might be thinking: $9 billion — and salmon are still on the ropes? This is a fair question. If we’re doing that much for these fish, maybe it’s no specific person, or institution, that’s to blame for them disappearing. But here’s another thing I learned that those glossy reports from government agencies won’t tell you about habitat restoration: They’ve been doing it all wrong. More on that after a quick break.


TS: Funny thing, it was actually a NOAA scientist who told me government agencies, including his own, have been going about habitat restoration all wrong.

Chris Jordan: I’m Chris Jordan, Northwest Fisheries Science Center. I am a research fisheries biologist.

TS: NOAA is a big agency. Chris Jordan isn’t making decisions about hatcheries or dam operations. He’s a researcher. And he’s spent his career studying what makes for effective habitat restoration, and how to measure the effectiveness of what we’re doing. He’s found a couple of problems: One, we’re not doing nearly enough of it. We’re still damaging habitat faster than we’re fixing it. And two, most of the habitat we fixed up was a quick fix. It didn’t last. We told public officials to restore salmon habitat, and they spent money on projects that looked good on paper: Dig a stream that’s wiggly, because salmon will like that better than a straight one.

CJ: And, and that was a whole industry with workshops and, and millions, if not billions, of dollars spent to engineer streams to be wiggly, because that was the one thing.

TS: Put some downed logs in the stream. Salmon like to swim under logs.

CJ: A couple of log jams are being put in and millions of dollars are being spent. Relative to the entire watershed, it’s a drop in the bucket. And relative to how much of that watershed the fish use, it’s a drop in the bucket, which is part of the issue why, for decades, we haven’t been able to demonstrate with a fish response that habitat restoration makes a difference.

TS: If you’ve ruined the natural processes that made healthy rivers, you can’t short-circuit them with a scattershot of construction projects and expect it to last.

CJ: When we go in as humans and try to make habitat, we are forgetting about the processes that should be naturally making that habitat. And the processes that made impaired habitat are still there. And this is what happens: we make what we think is good habitat — the flow processes, the wood supply, the biological, you know, the amount of vegetation on the floodplain — those are still impaired and they unmake our well-intentioned restoration work.

TS: If you dig a wiggly stream but don’t give the river space to flood and twist and bend, it’ll just straighten out again. That’s why, despite agencies keeping tallies of how many miles of streams have been “restored,” we can’t point to proof that it’s actually boosted salmon populations. Listen to this assessment from a team of a dozen scientists, which they first published in a 2015 report. They said:

Crystal Ligori: “It simply is not clear that habitat restoration as currently practiced can be effective enough to be successful.”

TS: Let that sink in. The United States has spent billions to improve salmon habitat. And after all this time, we can’t say whether what we’ve done actually works. But that’s what we chose. I know, you may take issue with the “we” there. I care about the salmon, you’re thinking. And I believe you. After all, you’re five episodes deep into a podcast about them. But here’s the thing: As a collective, we in the Northwest demanded salmon be saved, but didn’t demand the sacrifices that would actually have a chance at saving them. Could dam operators increase the likelihood of salmon surviving their journey? Certainly. But the Pacific Northwest might not enjoy some of the lowest power rates in the country anymore. Could public health agencies require cleaner wastewater? Yes. Would we have to pay more in utility bills and taxes? Also yes. Could we keep rivers cooler with stricter rules for farms and forests? Yes. But your groceries and your home would probably cost more. There are egg cartons at the supermarket stamped with a guarantee of salmon-friendly farming. I don’t buy them. I buy the cheaper ones. And there’s a chemical in car tires that we know is toxic to salmon. I still drive every day. This is what’s eventually revealed to those kids touring Bonneville Dam.

Heather Monti: What else do you think is making it hard for salmon? PEOPLE. Sometimes, we see rising water temperatures, pollution. Those are all kind of things that have been introduced by humans in the past.

TS: Yes, we all killed the salmon. Blame you. Blame me. But remember, we made our choices based on the story the government gave us about how much we were doing for salmon. And that story wasn’t just sugarcoated. Turns out, it was based on a falsehood. The government never intended to save the salmon. At least, not all of them.


TS (on tape): Hey, Tami. It’s Tony.

Tami Wilkerson: Nice to meet you.

TS (on tape): This is Julie.

TS: It’s a fall afternoon, and producer Julie Sabatier and I are on the third floor of an office building in Northeast Portland, visiting a library you’ve never heard of: The Columbia Basin Fish & Wildlife Library. There’s a document here I’m supposed to find. Well over a year ago, I published a 5,000-word story about how U.S. hatchery policies had failed tribes. And I always expect criticism on a big story, but tribes gave me a bit of feedback I didn’t expect: They said I’d missed something. Hatcheries hadn’t simply failed, they’d been wielded against tribes before the tribes gained a hand in running them. A few people recommended I talk to Doug Dompier, an old biologist who used to work for the tribes. Years ago, he’d filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents about the early days of salmon restoration on the Columbia. He says he stashed them at this tiny fisheries library housed by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. There’s one in particular he says lays out how the government really felt about tribes and salmon.

Doug Dompier: It’s just a little one page memo from Sam Hutchinson, but it’s a good one.

TS: So, Julie and I start unpacking banker boxes full of obscure documents, some of them dating back to the 1940s. And in these memos and letters, we start to see a government plan take shape: Build dams upriver, and then only worry about the salmon below those dams.

TS (on tape): A memo from the Bureau of the Budget. This is the interesting part: “Moreover, when the fishery program is accelerated,” meaning when they start pumping out more hatchery fish, “it is our belief that the demand for fish passage facilities at dams should cease.” So, basically, we don’t have to worry about fish getting past these dams.

TS: Julie finds a state official’s memo on the same subject.

Julie Sabatier: OK, here you go: “The ultimate benefit will be realized principally in the ocean, sport, trawl, the Columbia River net fishery and recreational fishery in the Columbia River and tributaries.”

TS: This is what I’d missed in my earlier reporting. After the dams were built, Congress created a series of programs ostensibly to make up for their impact: lots of hatchery production, and some habitat conservation, too. But almost all the work they funded was below the dams. They ignored the salmon most impacted by the dams so that they could make a superabundance in the ocean and lower river, for white people. Between about 1950 and 1980, 26 hatcheries were built to mitigate the impact of dams. Of those 26, 24 of them were below the Native American fishery at Celilo Falls. About 99% of the fish they produced would never reach traditional tribal fisheries.

DD: There was just no balance in what was being released in the upper Columbia and versus what was being released in the lower Columbia.

TS: Doug Dompier wanted me to understand just how detrimental this imbalance could be. The surplus of hatchery fish in the lower river sustained high rates of fishing. But…

DD: So, now you think about these fish when they go out and they come back, they’re all mixed together.

TS: And the fragile, wild fish get caught right along with all the hatchery ones. And the population gets exhausted.

DD: When you don’t have any fish production, and you have all these other ones being produced and then being harvested, what few that were left were also being caught. And between that and the mortalities at the dams, which they’re going to suffer that, we know that, it was just a blow that they could not withstand.

TS: As Julie and I keep flipping through these pages, we see tribal leaders repeatedly urging the government not to abandon the upriver stocks of salmon.

TS (on tape): “The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission has been reviewing for some time the existing hatchery practices of the state and federal fishery agencies”

JS: “We are compelled to express our concerns to you on this important subject.”

TS (on tape): “And yet not a single smolt has been planted in the area where the loss occurred.”

TS: Doug kept these documents meticulously organized. But not in an order that means anything to us. So, Julie and I are trying to make sense of his footnotes as we look for that original memo he mentioned.

TS (on tape): I think I found this. OK. Footnote 75.

JS: Chapter?

TS (on tape): Let’s see. Ok. Uh, one.

JS: Um, OK. Chapter one, number 75. OK. Here we go. 74 … Uh, you’re not going to believe this. It goes from 74 to 76.

TS (on tape): No, it doesn’t.

JS: It does.

TS: No, it doesn’t.

JS: It does!

TS (on tape): You’re just saying that for podcast purposes.

JS: I’m really not saying that for podcast purposes. It does. I’m sorry. Chapter one, number 74. Chapter one, number 76.

TS (on tape): God dammit.

TS: Eventually…

JS: Oh wait, chapter one, number 37 and number 75.

TS: Oh!

JS: So, it’s referenced twice.


JS: All right. Do you want to check that out?

TS (on tape): Yeah.

JS: All right.

TS (on tape): “Office memorandum, United States Government from Acting Regional Director. Subject: lower river program. Date: January 16th, 1951 phone call with a Mr. Lundy.” This is from Samuel J. Hutchinson, acting regional Director for the Bureau of Fisheries, referring to a conversation with Mr. Lundy of The Oregonian: “He asked as to the effects of the Dalles Dam. I stated that the beneficial effects would compensate for the detrimental conditions that exist there at present. In brief, it would be easier for the fish to go over a ladder in the dam than to fight their way over Celilo Falls. The Indian commercial fishery would be eliminated and more fish would reach the spawning grounds in better condition.”

JS: Is that it? I mean, that sounds like it.

TS (on tape): Yeah. He’s saying it would be a benefit of the Dalles Dam to destroy the Celilo fishery, the Indian fishery at Celilo Falls.

JS: Woah.

TS: When they made plans to build dams, government officials were promising tribes they’d have more fish than ever.

Don Sampson (from episode 4): They said, “Don’t worry, chief.” He says, “You’ll have more salmon than you ever had.”

TS: And yet here’s evidence that the head of the fisheries bureau, meanwhile, was telling a journalist — a journalist like me — that what they really wanted to do was put an end to tribal fishing. They nearly did. In the years after dam construction, one upriver Columbia salmon species, the coho, went extinct. Sockeye salmon nearly did, too. Famously, in 1992, only a single, male sockeye returned to Idaho and found no one to mate with that year. He was dubbed “Lonesome Larry.” Sockeye are still on the brink. And Chinook salmon and steelhead in the upper Columbia and Snake rivers? They’re also on the brink. Tribal biologists say Snake River populations could be quasi-extinct in a matter of years.

Do you remember in episode 3, we told you about a court ruling called The Boldt Decision? It said tribes were entitled to half of the harvestable fish in the river. And Randy’s cousin, LiaDonna, she had this to say about it:

LiaDonna Lopez Whitefoot: I call it the big lie.

TS: Well, this is one reason why people feel that way. Half of the harvestable fish doesn’t mean much if there are no fish that get to you. But tribes aren’t letting the salmon disappear without a fight. After their court victories in the fish wars, Columbia River tribes started their own fishery programs. They opened their own hatcheries. And they made a few changes.

Jermaine Hart: We’re just doing our best to try to help maintain and hopefully find its way to manage itself again. It’s our pleasure to do this, you know, it’s, it is our right. You know, it’s, it’s our duty.

TS: That’s next time, on “Salmon Wars.”

View all episodes of the “Salmon Wars” podcast here.