Sockeye numbers reach highest level in decades in Idaho's Sawtooth country

This is very good news!! They were almost extinct 15 years ago.

Sockeye numbers reach highest level in decades. A total of 386 sockeye salmon had arrived in the Sawtooth Valley by Tuesday [August 19]. By JASON KAUFFMAN, Idaho Mountain Express Staff Writer





  1. Linda Hunter Avatar

    It is nice to read some good news once in a while. Wouldn’t it be cool to see huge runs of fish and lots of bears, eagles and other animals there to reap the harvest as well as lush plant life all around, just like the remote places in Alaska. A good daydream.

  2. john weis Avatar
    john weis

    Speaking of inbreeding, just how diverse are these 386 sockeye’s? Anybody looking at that, or is a fish just a fish just a fish…

  3. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    We need to really start dreaming. I stopped at Babine Lake in British Columbia three years ago and was astounded to see a stream entering the lake, and the two spawning channels on either side, packed with bright red spawning sockeye. I was told that it was a small run and “only a million” sockeye had returned to spawn that year.
    Sockeye numbers were once so plentiful in Idaho that there was a sockeye cannery in Mcall, Idaho, just ten miles north of where I live today. Today there are no salmon of any kind here in the Payette River or above Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon Dam on the Snake River.
    For starters, the four salmon killing dams on the lower Snake River need to be removed and Idaho Power Company needs to be required to live up to its’ fifty year old pledge to get salmon past its’ Hells Canyon complex of dams. Fish ladders or some other means for salmon passage should be required on ALL dams on streams that had former salmon runs.
    We need to start dreaming and demanding that salmon be restored in ALL streams they once inhabited.

  4. brian martin Avatar
    brian martin

    The inbreeding question is a concern, but scientists are looking into it…

  5. Salle Avatar

    And just how many of these are indigenous v. hatchery fish that our “decider” decided were okay to include in the annual return counts so the numbers would go up significantly? All in the name of good press and delisting… kind of like they did with the wolves.

  6. Buffaloed Avatar


    All of these fish are descendants of the few fish that have returned in the last 16 years or so. At one time nearly all of the Sawtooth sockeye were in a captive breeding program and they were held in Eagle, Idaho and at a hatchery near Seattle so that if any mishaps were to occur (there were many) they wouldn’t lose them all.

    All of these fish are truly descendants of Idaho Sockeye salmon. Yes, they did spend most of their early life in a hatchery but I argue that they would be entirely extinct had the captive breeding program not been in place.

    Are they genetically different than the wild fish? I don’t see how they could be since they are practically genetically identical since they are all descended from a very few individuals.

    Are they behaviorally different? Probably but they still exist and hopefully will thrive again after we breach the dams 😉

    This is a fluke but it is yet to be determined what degree changes in management of the fish and the dams has had on the increased numbers. I have heard, but not read anyplace, that other stocks of sockeye, outside of the Columbia where the management of the dams has changed because of Judge Redden’s rulings, have not seen similar increases but that does not mean that ocean conditions did not benefit Columbia stocks in particular or that management of the dams helped. It is a confusing jumble of circumstances and it will be argued over and over based on people’s point of view which had more impact on these good returns.

  7. Salle Avatar


    Thanks for the history on the sockeye. I wasn’t really clear on that type of salmon. I do know that other types of anadramous fish in the columbia are largely hatchery fish and are not actual descendants of the indigenous populations that have been in serious decline. I do recall that recently the feds were changing the rules to include non-native hatchery fish in the population counts so they could be considered to be in a stronger “state of recovery” by using falsely acquired numbers.

    There was quite an uproar about it in the mid-Columbia region.

  8. john weis Avatar
    john weis

    I agree, this is very good news in the short run. We have been up there at the fish trap below Redfish and have been depressed at the thought the Redfish strain was extinct. But for the long run….

    Sixteen fish make up the genetic heritage of the current population of Salmon sockeye. That is not much in the way of diversity. While these 16 fish may contain the genes that allow for the “fitness” to swim from the ocean to Redfish lake, they will not include the diversity to acclimate to environmental and disease stresses. That is the central problem, as the movement of whirling disease in populations of sensitive fish has shown.

    Other than the obvious (tear down the 4 dams on the lower Snake for starters) confused fish could, overtime, help save the Idaho sockeye. In any given year, 5 to 10% of salmon get confused and end up swimming up the wrong river. There is the potential that sockeye’s from other river runs with “different” genetics than the Redfish lake fish could end up following the Redfish trail and get caught in the fish traps (even natural breeding???). By mixing their eggs/sperm into the Redfish lake fish mess, diversity could be increased. I am sure fisheries biologists have thought about how to do something like this by picking sockeye milt and roe from other sources, but a natural cure would be the best.

  9. Buffaloed Avatar

    I agree with you John. New genetics from another run of sockeye would be good as long as it occurred naturally. I think it would be a very bad decision to try to mix Idaho Sockeye with another run because the other run may not have the genetic makeup to swim the 900 miles to the Stanley Basin and spawn at the correct time etc. For that matter I don’t know that any run of Sockeye could possibly stray that far and actually do the deed so I doubt that it is highly unlikely that it could ever occur naturally.

    That being said, I do know someone trained in fisheries that observed a sockeye in Big Creek in the Frank Church Wilderness. I have heard of other instances of this too. As far as I know nobody knows the origin of these flukes so it can’t be ruled out that they are just strays that didn’t make it back to Stanley, strays from Wenatchee etc. or just Kokanee straying from Dworshak. In fact, some of the “sockeye” counted at Lower Granite Dam are Kokanee that came through Dworshak and either made it to the ocean or just grew to adulthood in one of the Snake or Columbia River reservoirs and returned to find out that they couldn’t climb over that massive dam on the NF Clearwater.

  10. Monty Avatar

    Question: In the 1980’s when I was a member of the NW Steelheaders we constructed “hatch boxes” & had permission from Fish & Wildlife to catch wild fish, milk them & fertilize the eggs & put the eggs in a hatch boxes & find individuals who lived adjacent to streams who would volunteer to watch the hatch boxes for 6 weeks & release the fry into the streams. In essence these were not hatchery fish–but wild fish. We had some encouraging success on fish returns but after several years the state Fish & Wildlife prevented us from continuing this practice–for reasons unknown (this was along the Rogue River in Oregon). This seemed like a cheap econoimcal way to produce wild fish. I welcome comments.

  11. Mike Post Avatar
    Mike Post

    Dont get too excited folks. Most of the west coast of North America is either closed to salmon fishing or experiencing surprising declines in both commercial and sport caught numbers this summer. The Inland Passage folks along BC and the AK panhandle are seeing some unforeseen declines. The impacts on coastal bears, eagles, etc are yet to be seen.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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