By Jeff Cole, Conservation Outreach Coordinator
Bert Bowler has been looking out for Idaho salmon longer than I have been alive.
Because I am a juvenile salmon advocate he looks out for me, too. Saturday morning I had the chance to see my mentor in action during a forward-thinking new event called Salmon Quest.
Few people are more qualified to talk about salmon than Bert. He worked as a fish biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game for 29 years. After retiring he worked at Idaho Rivers United for another six years. In 2007 he founded Snake River Salmon Solutions. His mission, as an independent advocate, is to engage the general public, stakeholders and politicians in the importance of Snake River salmon and steelhead restoration.
Salmon Quest, hosted by Bert in the second floor Ivory Room of the Owyhee Plaza in downtown Boise, was designed as an educational event about Idaho salmon and the challenges they face to survive. Guests of all ages browsed calligraphy featuring hopeful salmon messages scribed on wood and paper that were displayed around the room before the presentation.
As Bert began, 70 curious attendees watched as he described the unique biology and lifecycle of salmon. Idaho salmon travel farther and higher than any other salmon species in the world. Their odyssey begins in the sterile alpine environments of central Idaho, then follows the Salmon, Snake, and Columbia rivers to the ocean where they swim to Alaska, past the Aleutian Islands, often to Russia and Japan before heading home. To culminate their journey they battle 900 miles of rivers and 6,500 feet of elevation to the exact riffles where their lives began.
Bert also outlined the reason for their decline. Outward migrating juvenile salmon called smolts don’t actually swim to the ocean as many people think. They rely on spring runoff to flush them down tributaries and rivers to the ocean. Eight dams block the flow of the river between Idaho and the Pacific, thus vastly impeding smolt migration. But the four dams on the Lower Snake River in Eastern Washington are particularly deadly because of their cumulative impact with the Columbia dams and lower flow volume.
Bert finished by plainly describing the politics restricting salmon recovery. Even though the majority of scientists agree that removing the four dams on the Lower Snake River is the best method to save endangered salmon, special interests block the path. The Bonneville Power Administration and Port of Lewiston both stand to lose money if the dams are removed. These interests have advocates in Washington, D.C, where they block the necessary legislation required for salmon recovery.
A historical Snake River photo presentation followed Bert’s multimedia salmon discussion. Jerry White, Snake River Landscape Coordinator, from Save Our Wild Salmon presented antiquated photography of the Lower Snake River before the construction of dams. In the presentation, called “Working Snake River,” White urged the audience not to view the photos as dusty relics but as a vision of what the future could hold. The photos depicted abundant salmon and steelhead along with recreation on white sand beaches and a free flowing Snake River.
When the presentations concluded the crowd appeared passionate, heads swirling with new information and ideas about salmon and salmon recovery. There was a hopeful air as people lingered to review the artwork and consider what a restored river could mean to the people of the Northwest. For my part, I left with a greater appreciation for the man who taught me almost everything I know about salmon and some new ideas for my own salmon presentations.
Bert hopes to take Salmon Quest on the road and give similar presentations throughout the Pacific Northwest. I wish him the best luck, but hope he comes home from time to time so I can continue to learn about salmon.