What’s Next for Reintroducing Salmon in the Upper Columbia River Basin?

Map of blocked areas

At its Wednesday, May 15 meeting, the Council hosted a discussion on the next phase of efforts to study and test the feasibility of reintroducing salmon above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia River. Members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and the Spokane Tribe of Indians, along with representatives from the Bureau of Reclamation, Bonneville Power Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the state of Washington, all presented to the Council about these efforts. Last fall, these tribes and the U.S. government struck a historic, 20-year agreement to reintroduce salmon in the Upper Columbia that could garner up to $300 million in federal funding.

Reintroduction refers to returning salmon and steelhead species that have been extirpated from a portion of the river basin – in this case from the upper Columbia by dam blockages – back into historically occupied habitats to carry out freshwater stages of their life cycle. This may require management actions such as providing fish passage, habitat improvements, assisted migration, artificial production, and other actions.


Chinook and sockeye salmon, steelhead, and other migratory fish species were historically abundant in the Upper Columbia, but have been blocked from accessing thousands of miles of habitat since 1938 when Grand Coulee Dam was built.

In 2000, the Council’s Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, at the recommendation of Upper Columbia tribes, included a provision to consider the feasibility of reintroducing anadromous fish into areas where they had been blocked by dams. Over the next two decades, with continued support from the tribes, the Council’s program reiterated calls for a science-based, phased approach to reintroduction.

Bring salmon back, and it will heal our people

The presentation opened with statements from Chairman Jarred-Michael Erickson, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation; Chairman Greg Abrahamson, Spokane Tribes of Indians; and Natural Resources Director Caj Matheson, Coeur d’Alene Tribe. The speakers shared personal stories of what it would mean to their families and communities to restore fish to the Upper Columbia, thanked the Council and federal agencies for their role in moving the issue forward, and spoke candidly of the work and challenges ahead.

Erickson reminded the audience that Kettle Falls was where Upper Columbia tribes would gather to fish. When Grand Coulee blocked the salmon runs and flooded Kettle Falls, the tribe held a Ceremony of Tears for the loss of salmon. Now, he says, they hope to hold a Ceremony of Joy to celebrate a successful reintroduction effort. Erickson also emphasized that the Upper Columbia tribes have been the “most impacted, least mitigated” by the federal hydrosystem, a point echoed by the other representatives.

Abrahamson also spoke of the history and significance of the river and the fish, recounting how his grandmother was born under a tree near the Columbia River. He said that reintroducing salmon begins to right a wrong and alleviate some of the suffering of the Spokane and other Upper Columbia tribes- “As it is said by some of our elders, ‘bring salmon back, and it will heal our people.’”

Matheson of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe commented on the time and effort it has taken to find common ground and move forward. “Over the years, we’ve sat in rooms with so many federal agencies, so many people, so many leaders across this region,” he said. “So often, we’ve seen people nodding their heads in agreement and even people saying: ‘Yeah, it’s an injustice. What’s happening to you guys, what’s happening with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, it’s an injustice.’ And yet the wherewithal to be able to make that change just wasn’t followed through.”

Representatives from the federal action agencies also shared brief remarks, including Deputy Regional Director Roland Springer, Columbia-Pacific Northwest Region, Bureau of Reclamation; Senior Policy Advisor Ben Zelinsky, Bonneville Power Administration; Senior Fish Program Manager Tim Dykstra, US Army Corps of Engineers; Energy, Water & Major Projects Division Manager Michael Garrity, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Zelinsky commented on the role that Grand Coulee plays in regional power. “We really appreciate that the agreement acknowledges the important role of Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams in providing adequate, efficient, economical, reliable power supply. That was a critical part of being able to get this deal done."

A brief Q&A with Council members followed, with discussion on future coordination with the Council, funding needs, and potential impacts from the ongoing negotiations over the Columbia River Treaty.

Oregon Council Member Louie Pitt, a member of the Warm Springs Tribe, expressed his congratulations, saying, “Our tribes have stepped up and used those [treaties] to do what their people have done, our people have done for thousands of years. Just, protect our way of life and take care of the gifts our Creator gave us. It’s a great day for me, because we’re growing as a nation, and this is one of the key things. And I’m hoping, I pray this is happening all through our nation.”

Idaho Council Member Ed Schriever added, “I can’t pass [up] the opportunity to thank you all for being here to share the emotions of the moment, and also…the reality ahead. This is the first step, and so thank you for coming and sharing…this undertaking represents a huge learning opportunity for the entire region.

Technical challenges and next steps

The meeting continued with a presentation from technical staff, including Anadromous Program Manager Connor Giorgi, Spokane Tribe of Indians; Anadromous Division Lead Tom Biladeau, Coeur d’Alene Tribe; and Senior Research Scientist Casey Baldwin, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Technical staff laid out some immediate next steps for the program as well as some current challenges and constraints.

An adult salmon being released. Photo courtesy of Casey Baldwin, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

One focus is on fish passage. According to Biladeau, the hope for the near future is to use dedicated facilities at the Chief Joseph Hatchery for “trap and haul.” Juvenile summer Chinook salmon are being released now, and when they return as adults they’ll be trapped and moved above the blocked areas until effective fish passage has been installed. Biladeau said that obtaining sockeye for this has been more challenging because, among other factors, one of the only hatcheries that raises them is in Canada.

In addition to sourcing enough fish for these studies, another challenge is finding locations to rear and acclimate them before release. Partnerships are being formed with multiple net pen programs, including the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Pacific Aquaculture, and the Spokane Tribe. Baldwin pointed out that given the complex life cycle of salmon, it’s necessary to plan years in advance. “The agreement just got signed in September, but had we waited until September 2023 to get started, we would be at ground zero right now. And so as we developed the Phase 1 report and the Phase 2 Implementation Plan, at the same time, we were…developing some of these options, so we could hit the ground running.“

Other near-term research needs in addition to juvenile migration studies, and behavioral studies include expanding studies to sockeye, adult salmon behavior studies, genetic evaluation, and hydraulic modeling.