Since time immemorial Pacific salmon and ocean-run steelhead trout have fought their way up the tumultuous waters of the Columbia and Snake Rivers to spawn in the headwater streams that flow west from Idaho’s towering snow-capped mountains. Their vast numbers fed wildlife such as bears and eagles, while sustaining the Indian tribes along the migration route. But with the damming of the great rivers and destruction of aquatic habitat due to logging, mining, road-building and development, the runs began to dwindle and in 1997 the Snake River Steelhead were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
Zoom forward the 23 years since they were listed and the numbers are grim indeed. Last October a mere 8,182 steelhead made it past the Lower Granite Dam. Despite the Nez Perce Tribe spending millions to recover the Snake River Steelhead upon which its people have relied for millennia, the on-going habitat destruction sanctioned and committed by the U.S. government has resulted in the lowest number of spawning fish in 25 years — and not even a sliver of traditional pre-dam spawning runs.
Tragically, instead of recovering the steelhead population, Trump’s Forest Service has decided to add to the extinction-threatening habitat degradation with another massive deforestation project. Hiding behind the phony excuse of “forest health,” the Lolo Insect & Disease Project would build nearly 14 miles of new roads in the Lolo Creek watershed and log nearly 3,400 acres, including 2,644 acres of clearcuts.
Adding insult to injury, Lolo Creek, which sits about 16 miles northeast of Kamiah, Idaho, has already been heavily logged and degraded to the point that steelhead decline in the watershed appears to be even greater than elsewhere in the Snake River Basin.
Even the agency’s own analysis found the project would ‘adversely impact’ steelhead ‘primarily due to turbidity plumes caused by ongoing road use for harvest activities near streams and sedimentation of stream beds caused by culvert removals, culvert replacements, and road use or reconstruction near streams.’ In other words, the project would do exactly the opposite of what is required to restore the threatened Snake River Steelhead under the Endangered Species Act.
Astoundingly, the deforestation project occurs in federally-designated Critical Habitat for Snake River Basin steelhead, which is found in all four of the sub-watersheds affected by the project — the Upper Lolo Creek, Mussellshell Creek, Eldorado Creek, and Middle Lolo Creek. The “Critical Habitat” designation is just what it says – habitat that is critical to the recovery of threatened and endangered species and must be protected if the specie is to avoid the permanence of extinction.
We hope the Trump administration takes our 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue seriously. Two months is plenty of time to make the changes necessary for the agency to comply with the Endangered Species Act and take steps to restore, not destroy, the once-mighty Snake River Steelhead spawning runs. If they ignore it, we will be left with no choice but to exercise our First Amendment rights and ask the federal courts to force the Trump administration follow the law.
But if it takes going to court to stop the Trump administration’s massive deforestation and habitat destruction of the imperiled and dwindling Snake River Steelhead, that’s exactly what we’ll do. If you want to help, contact Friends of the Clearwater and/or the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. While this battle may seem local, the forests, rivers and fish are the natural resource legacy of all Americans – and we always, always appreciate our nationwide supporters.
We would also like to thank the law firm of Bricklin & Newman LLP for representing us.
Gary Macfarlane is the Ecosystem Defense Director for Friends of the Clearwater.
Mike Garrity is the director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.