- Associated Press - Thursday, October 27, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Changes in how dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers are operated are needed to improve migratory conditions for protected runs of Snake River chinook salmon and steelhead, federal officials said.

A proposed recovery plan released Thursday by the National Marine Fisheries Service also said habitat needs to be improved in tributaries where fish spawn and in the Columbia River estuary where young fish transition to ocean life.

The Snake River and its tributaries in Idaho, Oregon and Washington state at one time supported more than half of the Columbia River basin’s summer steelhead and more than 40 percent of the spring and summer chinook salmon.

But in the 1990s the two runs were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The 262-page recovery plan is described as a roadmap for federal agencies, state governments, tribes and private entities to use for possible action that could boost the two runs.

The plan sets goals before delisting can be attained. The goals, which include the number of returning fish, are broken down into the various streams that make up the Snake River Basin, with some streams in better shape than others.

For some populations “we may see substantial and quick movement in productivity, and in others it may take longer,” said Ritchie Graves of the National Marine Fisheries Service during a news conference Thursday.

Scientists acknowledged gaps in knowledge in creating the plan. The reason for losses of young fish in tributaries is not clear, for example. And what young fish do when exiting the Columbia River into the Pacific Ocean in what is recognized as a unique ecosystem called the plume is also not clear.

“The importance of understanding how fish survive and don’t survive in the plume has become increasingly important,” said Rosemary Furfey, recovery coordinator for the Fisheries Service.

The ultimate goal, managers say, is to have self-sustaining populations so the fish can be delisted. The federal agency estimates that could take 50 to 100 years. It estimates the cost over the next 10 years for just habitat work will be $139 million.

Comments on the proposed plan that also includes hatchery strategies, angler harvest, predator problems, climate change and more are being taken through Dec. 27, with those comments being used to create a final plan expected sometime in mid-2017.

The recovery plan takes into account a much larger legal battle involving all 13 endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia Basin.

In May, a federal judge in Portland, Oregon, ruled that the massive habitat restoration effort by the U.S. government doesn’t do nearly enough to improve Northwest salmon runs, handing a major victory to conservationists, anglers and others who hope to someday see the four dams on the Snake River breached to make way for the fish. The judge ordered the government to come up with a new plan by March 2018.

The recovery plan released Thursday doesn’t include removing the Snake River dams, but has language that would allow it to be modified to bring it in line with whatever comes out in the court-ordered 2018 plan.

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