Slide background


Save Our Wild Salmon

In 2023, 90% of Snake River Sockeye that entered the mouth of the Columbia River died before reaching the Sawtooth Valley lakes, writes guest columnist Pat Ford.


By Pat Ford
January 29, 2024

Some six miles south of Stanley, an imposing 38 year old concrete weir, perforated at bottom by five spill bays, extends across the Salmon River at the downstream end of the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery.

The hatchery weir was built to collect Chinook salmon and steelhead brood stock for on-site propagation, and prevent hatchery fish from passing above the hatchery to native fish spawning areas. But each summer, this old weir now impedes or blocks passage of endangered Sockeye salmon bound for Pettit Lake, and now and then Alturas Lake, in the Sawtooth Valley.

Adult Sockeye, in small numbers, draw near the Sawtooth lakes in late summer, having swum nearly 900 miles while climbing 6,600 feet from the sea. They have survived a winnowing upstream migration. In 2023, 90% of Snake River Sockeye estimated to enter the mouth of the Columbia River died before reaching the Sawtooth Valley lakes. These lakes, used and held dear by people since long before Idaho existed, are the only place on earth Snake River Sockeye salmon still exist.

Most of the survivors, nearing their destination, now turn right into Redfish Lake Creek, about two miles below the hatchery weir, and head up to that big lake. A very few, from zero to low double digits, pass Redfish by to stay in the river. These Sockeye are homing for Pettit Lake, or more rarely Alturas Lake, which lie above the weir. But at the weir, they are confused, delayed and often repelled at the entrance to its fish trap. A few get through – in 2023, just one did, headed, remarkably, to Alturas Lake – but others stall out below the weir.

That ocean-going sockeye salmon still exist in the Sawtooth Valley, Idaho owes to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. In 1991, the Tribes filed a petition to list Snake River Sockeye as endangered. That first salmon petition under the Endangered Species Act set legal and political waves rolling that salmon rescue work Northwest-wide still rides.

At the lakes, the Tribes’ petition has led over three decades to an extensive, expensive, collaborative — at times controversial — emergency room restoration effort for Snake River Sockeye in Redfish, Pettit, and eventually Alturas Lake. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes lead one of its parts: restore Sockeye to Pettit Lake. The hurdle is that by the time, the Tribes began their work all native Pettit Sockeye were extirpated. The Tribes’ Pettit program is small, science-based, collaborative, culturally distinct – and has made progress in knowledge, tools, and Sockeye presence in Pettit. The outdated weir at Sawtooth Hatchery is an obstacle, every summer, to more progress.

I write to draw attention to the situation at the weir. Also, to look more closely at the protean Sockeye, aka O. nerka, whose anadromous form goes out to sea from, and a few years later returns in red dress to, these mountain lakes in central Idaho. And at the Shoshone-Bannock program to restore Sockeye to Pettit Lake, and restore Sockeye harvest and connection to the Tribes.

Technical assessment found problems with Sawtooth Fish Hatchery in 2017

A 2017 technical assessment found the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery weir out of compliance with federal standards. Here is a partial summary of the weir’s deficiencies from that assessment: “Operators have observed the ladder fail to operate properly. The PIT-tag detectors have caused disruption to the intended flow steps of the ladder. Fish have been observed having difficulty navigating the shape of the ladder, as it consists of only turning pools. The ladder entrance is at a concrete apron of the exclusion barrier. Fish have trouble locating the entrance, particularly during low flows. Fish have been observed to run into the wall rather than finding the entrance, causing injury and delay.”

Most prominent among fish affected are Snake River Chinook salmon, which are officially threatened with extinction, and Snake River Sockeye salmon, which are endangered of extinction, the highest risk category.

In 2023, no Pettit-bound Sockeye navigated the hatchery weir on its own. Four Pettit Sockeye were genetically identified as such after being taken to Eagle Hatchery near Boise, and then trucked back for release into Pettit Lake. Three more Pettit Sockeye were corralled Sept. 21, in a logistical doozy just below the weir called the sockeye roundup. A 25-person crew deployed a beach seine, 100 feet long and eight feet deep, to capture some of the stalled-out Sockeye. (Some always escape or have moved from the vicinity.) These three were then trucked above the weir and also released into Pettit Lake.

This roundup was the 14th since 2004. Coordinated by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and crewed by federal, state and tribal fisheries staff, the operation is essential until a working weir is in place. Thanks to it, three Pettit-bound Sockeye, two of them female, reached the lake in 2023 that otherwise would not have. Each is a precious contributor to re-establishing natural Sockeye production in Pettit Lake.

But the roundup is itself an argument for a modern, multiple-purpose weir. So is the separate Chinook salmon roundup that must take place in some years, earlier than the Sockeye operation. A modern weir would sort hatchery fish, and with ecological efficiency pass naturally spawning Sockeye salmon, Chinook salmon, and steelhead through to plentiful lake and stream habitats of high quality, in the Salmon River headwaters above the hatchery.

In those healthy habitats today, native salmon are already gone, in process of winking out, or in emergency room care. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes intend to start a counter-trend, toward abundance, in Pettit Lake.

Lake conditions, including food supply, are an important factor in determining where salmon can thrive

“Of all species of Pacific salmon,” says the eminent authority Robert Behnke, “the sockeye salmon exhibits the greatest diversity of life history types.” Until 150 or so years ago, the Sawtooth lakes were an all-natural demo.

At that time, five lakes (add Stanley and Yellowbelly lakes) together hosted a few ten thousands of anadromous red Sockeye each summer, farther inland from the sea, and higher, than any sockeye on earth reach. Residual Sockeye were present, in unknown numbers – sockeye that have stopped going to sea and become resident in their lake. And kokanee too, the much smaller stream and sometimes lake spawners, in flashing red schools, also resident.

All three are Oncorhynchus nerka, or O. nerka, the species we call Sockeye. Each type maintains its separate population, and also interbreeds with the others at low, variable, but regular rates. Also at low but regular rates, offspring of residual Sockeye, and kokanee, head to sea, their anadromous drive somehow turned on. Offspring of sea-going Sockeye will residualize and stay in their lake, their anadromous drive somehow turned off. And O. nerka from one lake will stray to others. Varying lake conditions, notably food supply, are likely a main influence on these “choices.” The result is a sturdy lake-connecting web in O. nerka form.

These separate yet linked forms of Sockeye – fish science calls them ecotypes – spread throughout the Sawtooth lakes, and inlet and outlet streams. Each ecotype knit into and fostered other life. Of course the anadromous, ocean-going type fostered spectacularly, delivering many thousands of kilograms of marine nutrients each year to the lakes, streams, basins, and skies – and to their descendant O. nerka. The anadromous type is the original, from which the other types evolve.

I imagine it as a tiny high Idaho echo of Alaska’s Bristol Bay: dense, intricate, thrilling abundance. It must have been something. But nostalgia isn’t my purpose. Two lessons stand out if the focus is forward, to recovery. O. nerka in the Sawtooth lakes have remarkably flexible evolutionary capabilities. And, dynamic connectivity across the Sawtooth lakes and their streams, plus an open route to the ocean, allowed those capabilities to flourish.

Shoshone-Bannock Tribes tend fish weir on Pettit Lake Creek

From high views, Alturas, Pettit and Redfish Lakes, with their inlets and outlets, can seem to stitch the Sawtooth Peaks to the Sawtooth Valley. Pettit is the middle lake, much used by people spring to fall. In winter, it’s left more to itself.

On Pettit Lake Creek, just below the lake, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes tend their own, two-year-old weir. This weir is creek size, much smaller than the hatchery weir, and modern: a latticed, mainly metal creek-crossing structure of rods, chutes, gates, traps, and panels, many movable, with walkways, and low moorings on both banks. The design allows efficient assessment, and then through-passage, of juvenile sockeye out-bound and adult sockeye in-bound. Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers paid for it: $1.6 million. The Tribes’ sign panel at the weir is worth your visit. Look right from the Pettit Lake road as you near the lake; parking is best past the weir, toward the lake.

The tribes’ weir allows their program to estimate numbers and composition of out-bound juvenile O. nerka heading seaward from Pettit each spring, and determine lineage for those live-sampled. It allows assessment and passage of in-bound adults each summer. For 25 years, the Tribes have also surveyed Pettit Lake, for water quality, zooplankton and other micro-life, other fish, and O. nerka composition. This work shows Pettit has the foods and habitats to again support annually varying but large Sockeye numbers. The Tribes’ weir and lake monitoring also demonstrate capacity in place to monitor effects in Pettit Lake if O. nerka numbers rise.

Historical evidence suggests Pettit once had all three Sockeye ecotypes: native anadromous, residual and kokanee. All had been extirpated by 1991, when the Tribes filed their endangered species petition. A chain of human actions, by non-Indigenous people in and beyond Idaho from roughly 1870 to this moment, is responsible. A non-native kokanee stock, from Washington’s Whatcom Lake by way of north Idaho, was introduced into Pettit Lake by Idaho Fish and Game in the 1970s.

Now 32 years after the Tribes’ petition, no native O. nerka ecotypes have yet re-established, ecologically or legally, in Pettit Lake.


Anadromous Sockeye – fish born in Pettit Lake and now back from sea to the Sawtooth Valley – are returning in tiny numbers. Since 2011, 41 is by far the high, in 2020 (though not all reached the lake), and zero the low. Residual Sockeye have also re-appeared in Pettit, smaller than the ocean-going type, olive drab in color, in a hard-to-measure population that spawn on lake shoals where the anadromous also spawn. Late each summer, some 100 adult anadromous Sockeye from the Redfish captive brood program are released into Pettit to spawn. These fish hold the native Redfish Lake O. nerka genetics present in “Lonesome Larry”, the sole returning Sockeye in 1992, and in a handful of other lonesomes that also returned that decade. The non-native Whatcom kokanee persists in an introgressed form, mixed with the Redfish captive brood stock.

Juvenile O. nerka are migrating out of Pettit Lake. In 2023, the Tribes estimated 5,200 out-migrants. That’s not close to what’s needed, given the drastic mortality awaiting them in their next two years, but it is much improved from nothing or next to it in 1991.

Genetic analysis for the Tribes by Ken-Gen Research shows consistent reproductive intermixing among all the groups at low, variable rates. The Sockeye born in Pettit that have returned, usually after two years in the ocean, are the only group to physically undergo, in lakes, rivers and seas, the full fresh-to-salt-to-freshwater life history. The more of these return, the more fitness can pass into in the next generation. The Tribes are thus determined to get every Pettit-bound sockeye that returns to the Sawtooth Valley, successfully into Pettit Lake to spawn. At this early stage in the recovery experiment, even consistent double-digit Sockeye returns to Pettit Lake would make a big difference. The double-digit anadromous return in 2020, and that year’s captive brood releases, produced over 90% of 2022’s out-migrants.

Genetic introgression, or mixing, is occurring. The non-native kokanee has largely disappeared into introgression with Redfish captive brood Sockeye. And, any offspring from, or intermixed with, the introgressed group now carry a genetic signature that identifies them as Pettit-origin. This means that evolution by local adaptation, in some partial, early, still fragile measure, is underway. “Sockeye and Chinook evolved through adversity,” says tribal member and former policy analyst Dan Stone. “That’s why anadromy evolved. They have the capacity to adapt, and rebuild. But we need many more fish back to keep that adaptivity in the populations.”

Some Q-and-A on the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery weir

What’s the problem? As described above, the fish trap entrance, ladder and trap do not allow effective safe passage of adult Sockeye heading to Pettit or Alturas, or of wild-spawning Chinook. The harm varies with river conditions, but the status quo does not allow routine passage of the most valuable fish the Shoshone-Bannock Sockeye program is producing: those born in Pettit that have survived to get back within a few miles of home. Hatchery operators have worked hard to improve aspects of trap and ladder performance, but the problem is structural.

Who’s in charge? Replacing or modifying the weir requires agreement among federal, state and tribal sovereigns. Three of the four parties already collaborate in the umbrella Sockeye recovery program that includes Redfish, Pettit, the captive brood, and more. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes lead Sockeye recovery in Pettit Lake. The National Marine Fisheries Service, aka NOAA Fisheries, has legal oversight to restore endangered Snake River Sockeye to Sawtooth lakes, and manages part of the captive brood program. The Idaho Fish and Game Department operates Sawtooth Hatchery and its weir, leads Sockeye recovery in Redfish Lake, and manages the other part of the captive brood program. Their collaboration has tensions – the existing hatchery weir is one source – but it is sustained and genuine.

The fourth party owns the hatchery and weir: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, via its Lower Snake River Compensation Plan program, aka Comp Plan. Decades ago, this program built hatcheries, including Sawtooth Hatchery, to mitigate for fisheries destroyed by the lower Snake River dams. The hatcheries have never provided that mitigation in sustained fashion, and never will with eight dams and reservoirs killing so many salmon downstream. That is not the Comp Plan’s doing, and as owner it has the lead to initiate weir planning. The Comp Plan’s parent agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has deep expertise in Columbia and Snake River salmon.

How much, and who pays? Weir replacement is in no existing budget. In 2017, a Comp Plan contractor developed a rough estimate of $6 million. This is best seen as a ballpark, since the passage needs of wild/natural salmon were not fully assessed then. An initial step will be contracting an engineering design and cost estimate for a multi-purpose weir. That estimate may itself cost in the mid-to-high $100,000s. Any actual weir work will require new funds, and the planning might also move faster with additional funds.

Possible funding sources are several, and some now have more resources with the Biden administration’s 2023 announcement of targeted Columbia Basin salmon funding. The Lower Snake Comp Plan, Bonneville Power Administration, tribal programs available under the Inflation Reduction Act, NOAA Fisheries, and Congress are among possible sources, as is a package. If the parties agree promptly on a solution, the funds can likely be found. There is plainly a moment to seize here.

How long will it take? I have found no estimate of how long planning, or construction, might take. Two track planning makes sense: options possible right now to deliver step-wise improvement, and options for a durable full solution. The latter track is the most important – the seize-able moment won’t wait – and must work through details I have not mentioned.

The four parties must agree on common objectives for any weir or passage work – objectives for wild-spawning Sockeye, Chinook, and steelhead going upstream of the hatchery; for hatchery operations; for effects on Tribal harvest; and for the dynamic range of fish and river conditions. Those objectives can then drive planning, engineering, and pursuit of funds.

In November 2023, at the Comp Plan’s invitation, a first meeting of the four parties to initiate problem-solving around the weir took place. A second meeting followed in January 2024.

The two federal agencies hold the key to prompt positive results. NOAA Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, within the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Interior, respectively, are both executors of the Biden administration’s recent salmon directives and agreements. Both have direction to move projects to construction that provide fish benefits, tribal benefits, and hatchery rehab. Fixing fish passage at Sawtooth Hatchery does all three. The Northwest and national leaders of both agencies need to hear about this solution in search of funding, and put it on priority lists.

Next steps for saving Idaho’s Sockeye salmon

Looking from today back to 1991, the Shoshone-Bannock Sockeye program has proceeded step-by-step. I asked Kurt Tardy, the Tribes’ Sockeye program manager, for the next steps. He provided a strategy: “Continue and fine-tune the captive brood releases. Let the Sockeye swim. Get every Pettit-bound adult Sockeye that makes it back to the Sawtooth Valley, into Pettit Lake to spawn. And continue the lake limnology and monitoring, so we can adaptively manage accordingly.” Effective fish passage at Sawtooth Hatchery is a leap forward on two of these, and boosts payoff from the others.

Looking back rather longer than 1991, the Tribes’ ties to anadromous fish were built in their seasonal round of food procurement. After fishing spring and early summer in middle Snake River areas, people moved to higher elevations in late summer, for Sockeye and Chinook. Restoring Sockeye can help restore the culture of salmon fishing born in these seasonal migrations to meet up with migrating fish.

“Now many tribal members have never been sockeye fishing,” Dan Stone says. “There are too few fish. It is uneconomical, and hurtful.”

In 1994, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes set a minimum goal of 6,000 naturally produced Sockeye salmon back in Sawtooth lakes, with 2,000 of them available for tribal harvest.

I hope to return to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ salmon stories, past, present and future. Encountering these Tribes by way of salmon is absorbing, and a bit daunting. Their sockeye program has a tangible sense of forward motion, but a fuller story must also attend to a grim recent past, cover the Tribes’ extensive Chinook salmon programs, and no doubt more to be discovered.

As for we newcomer Idahoans: restored salmon, fish to fish for, is a treaty obligation made in our names to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. If met for those Tribes, it will bless the rest of Idaho too, many-fold. For example, I have found in interviews that Sockeye recovery, to an abundance like that the Tribes aim for, is widely wished for among permanent and seasonal residents of the Sawtooth Valley and Stanley Basin. Their reasons span the gamut, but all are rooted in their home, which, they understand, is salmon’s home too.

Restoring a new version of salmon abundance to the Salmon River’s headwaters is a complex enterprise, under construction. Here is one necessary step on the way: make those Salmon headwaters freely navigable by salmon again, to Alturas Lake Creek, Pettit Lake, Alturas Lake, Pole Creek, Decker Flat, and so on.

The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes ask us to join them to fix the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery weir for Sockeye and Chinook salmon passage. We can say yes.

Editor’s note: Pat Ford gratefully acknowledge the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ Sockeye program staff and contractors: Kurt Tardy, Bob Griswold, Kendra Eaton, Rebecca Croy, and Rob Trahant. They immersed me in their work, and were patient, and patient again, in correcting my understanding and errors. Any errors remaining are mine. For lengthy interviews or on-site visits, I also thank Shoshone-Bannock Tribal member Dan Stone; David Venditti, Bob Becker, and Tony Folsom, Idaho Department of Fish and Game; and Nate Wiese, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Lower Snake River Comp Plan administrator. Thanks also to Tom Stuart and Ed Cannady, Sawtooth Valley salmon experts and champions, and my first reader, Julia Page.

Pat Ford grew up in Idaho Falls. He worked for the Idaho Conservation League for seven years, and he worked for the Save Our wild Salmon Coalition for 22 years. He retired in 2014 and lives in Boise with his wife, Julia Page.

Idaho Capital Sun: Let the Sockeye swim: How a program of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes aims to help save Idaho salmon article link

Share This