Fate of Idaho salmon plays out in tiny Marsh Creek

Wild salmon increasingly spawn in tiny Marsh Creek and other small central Idaho waters-

Fate of Idaho salmon plays out in tiny Marsh Creek. The fish that spawn here are among the most vulnerable in the region. Will Obama’s plan help if the population plummets? By Rocky Barker. Idaho Statesman.

About 5 years ago, I saw my first spawning wild salmon in Idaho in Marsh Creek. Great!

Marsh Creek Meadows and the distant Sawtooth Mountains. Copyright Ralph Maughan






  1. Salle Avatar

    That’s very interesting and amazing. I had no idea that Marsh Creek could support salmon spawning. I have seen small brook trout up in City Creek ~ which is equivalent to a very small irrigation ditch that you can step over, at least a decade ago but never thought salmon could reach that part of Idaho. I always thought they needed a little larger waterway than Marsh Creek.

    It’s a good thing to know but also something of a “nail-biter” as to whether they can continue given the obstacle course they have to survive en route and rather unfavorable ocean conditions.

    Is there a fish ladder at American Falls dam? I know there’s a fish hatchery there but it seems it’s below the dam.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Anadromous fish never got up the Snake River beyond those waterfalls near the city of Twin Falls. I’m not sure if Shoshone Falls blocked them or if there is a falls a bit more downstream.

    However, they did swim up the tributary Salmon Falls Creek and spawn in Nevada.

  3. Layton Avatar

    Many creeks smaller than Marsh Creek used to hold populations of spawning salmon.

    Even the main Weiser River is small. By the time it splits into the Middle, East and West Forks, it becomes REALLY small.

    I remember my Dad and his friends spearing salmon at night in the East and West Branches of the West Fork of the Weiser. I also remember there being so many fish that it looked like you could walk across the water on them.

    Johnson Creek and Profile Creek are just over the hill from Marsh Creek and (I think) smaller. They make up the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon. I have also seen MANY salmon spawning in both of them. The salmon don’t really need much water.

    That said, I really don’t think the Snake River dams specifically affect these salmon runs much, since the Salmon runs into the Snake below three of the most commonly referred to “Snake River Dams”. The Columbia Dams on down stream are the ones that raise the most hell with Salmon River fish.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to see a lot more effort to restore the runs, but I really think they should start from the downstream end of the Columbia basin.

  4. Salle Avatar

    I was thinking this was the waterway in Marsh Valley over in eastern Idaho. Must have a different name. I’m checking the map…

    I was aware of the obstacle of the Lower Snake River dams. Several species have become extinct because of them.

  5. Layton Avatar


    The Marsh Creek that Barker is referring to is the creek that flows west out of the Stanley Basin (Valley Creek goes East and joins the Main Salmon) and joins Bear Valley Creek to make up the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

  6. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    The Snake River dams that affect the salmon in Marsh Creek are the ones on the Snake River between
    Lewiston, Idaho and the Columbia. There are four dams on the Snake between Oregon and Washington and salmon numbers in the Salmon River drainage have suffered ever since they were built. These are the four Snake River Dams that should be removed as soon a possible
    There are four more dams in the Hells Canyon Complex which are also Snake River Dams. The Hells Canyon dams are above the mouth of the Salmon River.
    The Hells Canyon Dams have completly stopped any salmon from reaching the upper Snake, The Weiser, Boise and Payettte Rivers in Idaho, since they have no fish ladders at all. When they were built, Idaho Power promised that they would make sure that the Salmon runs were preserved. That was over fifty years ago and they have yet to get one salmon past their dams.

  7. Layton Avatar


    Yes, that’s the dams that I was referring to also.

    Did Idaho Power completely escape putting fish ladders or something like that on the Hell’s Canyon dams by “mitigating” (sarcastic as hell) the lost runs with the Rapid River Hatchery above Riggins?

  8. Salle Avatar

    It’s been many years since I was actually up past Bruce Meadows, it seems the only creek along that portion of the route to Boundary Cr. was the Bear Valley Cr. that I can recall. Given that I don’t remember the place names all that well, from 1993, I will never forget how beautiful the place is. Back then I thought that there were too many visitors who had no respect for the wilderness they were entering. It’s good to know that some salmon do return there, so far. I wonder, too, whether they can continue there.

  9. Wilderness Muse Avatar
    Wilderness Muse


    Curiously, it is not only dams on the Columbia and the Snake that have prevented migration. It seems a few years back cormorants and Caspain terns on the lower Columbia have dramatically increased in number from something like 100 in the late 1980’s to over 12,000 breeding pairs at present. They were responsible for eating nearly 13 million juvenile salmon per year. The US Army Corps of Engineers has moved the colonies down stream nearer the ocean and away from the Columbia Estuary by making their old habitat not so inhabitable and creating new in an area where they can eat a larger variety of fish, with fewer salmon; they still are snacking down on close to 3.5 million salmon smolt per year.

    The attached article from the Corps is from 2005 testimony to a group of Congressional folks, so is a bit dated but does give a picture of what is going on on the lower Columbia.


    Here is another, which focuses on the efforts of OSU to assist in the relocation:


  10. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    I read they put fish passage facilities of some sort on the Hells Canyon dams, but they failed. I don’t know the details.

  11. Layton Avatar


    Yes, the Terns were a bad deal. Interestingly, one of the ways they found out just how many of the juvenile salmon were being eaten was finding the Pitt Tags on the islands where the birds were nesting.

    Now one of the bad things is the sea lions. They have also figured out just where the salmon come thru and have a heyday at the start of the fish ladder at Bonneville.

    I’ll read the references — thanx.

  12. Salle Avatar

    Several years ago I saw a documentary on the sea lions. It seems that even when they loaded many up and relocated them further south in California, they would be right back in a matter of days.

    And then there are all the perils of life in the open ocean, fishing, other predators, etc. during the three to five years many are out there prior to returning to spawn.

    In the “Fisheries” journal (January 2001, I think) there was a very interesting article on a study that indicated the importance of salmon as a keystone specie for places like central Idaho. They found that because of the dams obstructing the fish in both directions, the flora and fauna of the interior forests were suffering from diseases and poor nutrition that it was something similar to HIV/AIDS-for the trees on particular. It appears that the only vector for important nutrients like phosphorus and nitrates, which come from the ocean, are delivered by the salmon, the only thing that can carry these nutrients from the ocean all the way to central Idaho. Indications showed that all life forms in the interior forests depend on the salmon to deliver this set of nutrients to the animals and bacteria that feed on their bodies and the trees that are fertilized by the droppings of the animals and the nutrients that are absorbed along the waters’ edge. They even found that otters would delay their reproduction to correspond to the salmon return because they rely on the fish for their young at that time.

    There certainly aren’t enough salmon to feed the vast forests of central Idaho these days…

    So I suppose someone like Layton or anyone in IDF&G to conclude that we should just cut down these forests because the dams are killing them anyway. Then they will have fewer wildlife to “manage” and more grass for elk and cattle. Such a deal.

  13. Brian Ertz Avatar

    dang … that’s a nice photo Ralph

  14. gline Avatar

    Oh Salle, you always say the right thing.

  15. Layton Avatar


    Were you born a horse’s patoot?? Or is it a trait you developed in later life??

  16. Ralph Maughan Avatar
  17. Salle Avatar

    Brian is right, that’s a very nice photo.

    Thanks gline, if only it were always so! I get some things right in a lot of my points. I guess it just depends on the abilities of those whom I make them to understand what I’m saying. Some folks don’t even understand the only language they’ve ever been exposed to or taught.

  18. Wilderness Muse Avatar
    Wilderness Muse


    There is an inexpensive solution for the sea lion problem. The coastal Washington tribes make pretty short work of them. Doubt these were legal kills, but the Indians are very matter of fact about it. The lions tear up their nets and get alot of fish. No need for an ineffective and costly relocation project, there. I saw three bloated carcasses on the beach at the mouth of the Quillayute (near Forks of Twilight fame) two years ago.

    Lethal solutions seem not to be in favor with so many groups who shall go unnamed, but it is a necessary part of fisheries/wildlife management. The National Marine Fisheries and USFWS folks will eventually deal with it, if they have not started doing so already (I just haven’t kept up the last few years).

    The dams on the Columbia will not likely be removed, and if so, they would be replaced. The BPA cheap electricity is too ingrained in the economies.of the NW. There is hope for dam removal on the Snake, however.

  19. gline Avatar

    “Lethal solutions seem not to be in favor with so many groups who shall go unnamed, but is a necessary part of fisheries/wildlife management.”

    That is a matter of perception.

    I am sure you are aware, there is a large amount of exploitation and overfishing going on in the seas WM. There aren’t as many fish as their once was to feed all- especially a rapidly expanding human population.

  20. timz Avatar

    I’ve spent countless weekends camping near and fly fishing in Marsh Creek. I’ve seen many bear, elk, and been awakened in the dead of night to wolf howls there. If their is a God’s country that is it.

  21. gline Avatar

    Ahh another one of my favorite people, Timz.

  22. timz Avatar

    Don’t know how to take that gline, if it’s a compliment thanks.

  23. gline Avatar

    it is a compliment.

  24. timz Avatar

    BTW, I’ve never caught anything in Marsh Creek, the only creek or river I’ve ever been skunked in. They (whoever they are) say it’s great fishing but it has my number.

  25. timz Avatar

    But as a follow up I don’t care, standing in that creek surrounded by that scenery is enough for me.

  26. Ken Cole Avatar

    I’ve attended many redd count training sessions on Marsh Creek and also operated the screw trap that is just above the confluence with Cape Horn Creek for a spring. It is a fascinating place and one of my favorites.

    I’ve seen salmon in the creek where it is only 3 feet wide. It still gets sheep grazing and if you stand in certain places you can see that the area had been either irrigated or cultivated at one time in the distant past.

    One of the problems with the stream is the non-native brook trout that inhabit it now. These fish spend their entire lifespan in the high elevation stream. They can reproduce at a very small size, will even eat juvenile salmon, and have displaced cutthroat, steelhead and salmon to a degree. They are beautiful little fish but they don’t belong there. I wish there was a way to get rid of them in places where they are impacting native fisheries but there is nothing to do.

    Another note about the Chinook salmon in Marsh Creek is that they are almost purely native salmon. There is very little hatchery influence with this run, there have been a few stray fish but these fish are relatively pure.

  27. smalltownID Avatar

    Salle, there is probably a dozen Marsh creeks in Idaho.

    This Marsh creek is sacred though. Perhaps the most beautiful fish I have ever caught was a cutt in spawning colors and hooking into a 20 pound salmon with a vibrax is quite a ride when you are 12 years old. It is a very dynamic stream though as Tim pointed out. The fishing can be phenomenol one year and horrible the next the same time of year.

    Definitely God’s country

  28. Linda Hunter Avatar

    The solution to the Colombia River dam sea lions is bears. At Bonneville they have an opportunity with just a little engineering to give the black bears access to the salmon in that area, create a world class bear viewing spot and give the sea lions something to think about. I have outlined this solution to people in the Oregon government but I think they just think I am crazy. There is a cheaper solution than removing all dams as well if they would just take out those stupid fish ladders and put in a natural stream bed but there is no study on that so it is off the table.

  29. Chuck Avatar

    The last NMF meeting I went to before I moved to Idaho, they gave a low number of 6,000 sea lions between the mouth of the Columbia river and Bonneville dam. These sea lions don’t eat the whole salmon, they take a few bites out of the belly and then go get another. The sea lions have also been reeking havoc on the sturgeon population below Bonneville dam. Then you have the terns & cormorants that are feeding on the fingerlings as they are migrating out of the river. Also you still have a commercial gillnet fishery & Indian set net fishery going on. A final note you also have a large fishery off the Oregon & Washington coast for Hake, also known as whiteing, these big 80-100 foot boats tow these nets through the midwater colum because thats where the hake are and along with the hake there are salmon mixed in. Can and will there ever be enough done to save the salmon from going bye bye for good???? Seems as always alot of foot dragging on this issue. I believe Hells canyon dam license was finally renewed. Your going to hear the farmer crying around Lewiston because if they take the dams out on the Snake river then they can’t ship their grain to market, well lets see, you have semi trucks, trains and believe it or not they use to use tug & bardges on the Columbia river before there were dams, it was quite a challenge get those tug & bardges through the rapids, but they did it. But I think one day we are going to wake up and go dam its too late the fish are gone.

  30. Ken Cole Avatar

    Nobody is talking about removing all of the dams just the four lower Snake River dams in Washington State.

    These dams don’t have much generating capacity and were built for navigation.

    As far as the sea lions and cormorants, the main reason they are so effective at capturing salmon is that the Dams provide them with the opportunity by either slowing the adults down to look for the fish ladder or by stunning the juveniles who have just come through the dam. The dams are the underlying problem.

  31. Ryan Avatar

    “The solution to the Colombia River dam sea lions is bears. At Bonneville they have an opportunity with just a little engineering to give the black bears access to the salmon in that area, create a world class bear viewing spot and give the sea lions something to think about. I have outlined this solution to people in the Oregon government but I think they just think I am crazy.”


    I wonder why they think you are crazy…

    “Lethal solutions seem not to be in favor with so many groups who shall go unnamed, but is a necessary part of fisheries/wildlife management.”

    That is a matter of perception.

    I am sure you are aware, there is a large amount of exploitation and overfishing going on in the seas WM. There aren’t as many fish as their once was to feed all- especially a rapidly expanding human population.”


    Here is the problem, enlightened people like yourselves get ideas on how to solve a simple problem without “hurting a precious sea lion” while the brain trust works on this, species are pushed to brink (Ballard locks and willamette river winter steelhead come to mind). You and your ilk are responisble for letting a healthy steelhead and salmon populations become listed and getting to a point where it may never recover. I’m sure there will be some brain trust response like its the dams fault that the salmon are so succeptible in those areas so lets avoid hurting the fur bags get rid of the dams. I agree the dams are a problem as is tribal fishing, unnatural cormorant and tern colonies in the estuary, commercial over harvest of mixed designation stocks, irrigation, and many many more but by not dealing with sea lion population it only exacerbates problem. Getting rid of bonneville dam will not happen in our lifetime. Lets not forget the indians who ignore ESA laws and kill even more listed chinook above the dams, but they are only slightly less sacred than the furbags in the enlightened crowds mind.

  32. gline Avatar

    Hey Layton I refuse to go on the defense…. but nice try.

  33. gline Avatar

    Chuck said: But I think one day we are going to wake up and go dam its too late the fish are gone.”

    Well said.

    I think there needs to be more said on coexistence for this reason.

  34. Ryan Avatar


    Do you think everyone that doesn’t agree with you is Layton?


    Interesting fact is that there is a rail bed under the reservoirs behind Hells canyon dams and many others that flooded when the dams were built. A close friend of mines parents own the Fishery, which is right below Bonneville dam, appearantly there was a local there who delt with the sea lion problem for the last 30+ years. He died about 8 or 9 years ago, only since then have the sea lion numbers skyrocketed at the dam.
    BTW, when people will still fight over how the last fish is divided, instead of fighting to protect them.

  35. Wilderness Muse Avatar
    Wilderness Muse


    You missed one impending, but huge, potentially overarching impact to the Columbia, including the Marsh Creek salmon runs. Just above the confluence with the Snake is the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. At the inept hands of Congress, (remember earlier Congresses funded research here that lead to the nuclear bombs that ended WWII with Japan), clean-up funds for nuclear waste have been delayed for decades, and are just now trickling in. Nuclear waste is migrating thru the cracked and fissured basalt matrix to the Columbia, where it will eventually add one more challenge to salmon restoration, and the very survival of life in ths very large and heavily managed river for an increasing human population.

    This is the same Congress that can’t seem to successfully regulate the securities industry, banking, its own lending institutions Fannie Mae & Freddie, immigration, and need I mention health care.

    And yes, tribal and commercial fishing nets do not discriminate between hatchery and wild ESA protected salmon and steelhead. I would be for stopping all harvest that has potential for taking endangered fish, and giving direct cash payment to the Indians in lieu of fishery entitlements (I know this would be in violation of the treaties and cultural/spiritual, but maybe Judge Redden would agree to some concessions on a temporary basis because of its inherent importance), holding commercial harvests at bay for at least one three/four year cycle (to the extent they can be controlled in and outside US waters), in hopes that the numbers of wild stock can be replenished.

    In the meantime, it seems we must work at the margins to affect change, and reducing sea lions, seems an appropriate and do-able strategy.

    Here is a little background, though slightly dated, on the impacts of sea lions and harbor seals to Puget Sound (Ballard locks included) and Columbia River salmon and steelhead.



    Gline, you might want to read these.

  36. Chuck Avatar

    Its a real sickening feeling to watch a sea lion toss a 6 foot sturgeon up in the air like it was a beach ball. I also remember up in the hills above the Long Beach peninsula there are some small streams that the smelt use to go up to and spawn, I mean streams only 6 to 10 feet wide, here we would find sea lions and seals gorging on the smelt.

  37. Ryan Avatar


    I am aware of Handford, but it’d be lucky to rank in the top 10 of issues affecting Salmon on the Columbia river basin. Granted the goverment will most likely mess it up and make it worse. A huge part of the issue is mixed stock fisheries in Canada that take a large portion of Oregon and Washington bound fish. Add Bass, Walleye, and other warm water fish, indiscriminate inriver tribal netting, archaeic commercial gillnetting in the Fall, and extinction seems to be the only plausible outcome.

  38. Linda Hunter Avatar

    Ryan, I know you have seen sea lions head up Big River in Alaska to Wolverine cove where the fish concentrate . . and what is it that stops them from hanging out and eating there? Bears. And what do bears do with the salmon they eat? They spread it around in the forest where it is needed and share it with both plants and other animals that need it. In Oregon the bears are simply fenced off from the salmon spawning creeks and the dam area but at the fish hatchery right at the Oregon site of the dam there is an opportunity to have bears enter into the ecosystem. The only problem is that in Michigan where salmon was introduced again after decades I have heard that bears there have forgotten how to eat fish. I am not sure that is true in Oregon. Yes I might be a little crazy for thinking outside the box but often times the best solutions are right in front of us and it takes a little crazy thinking to see them.

  39. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears


    I think one of the biggest problems with your bear idea that works in other areas of the country, would have a very difficult time working in OR or WA is the major highways and freeways, you would have a lot of bears being hit by cars. I just came back from WA for the holidays and traveled I-84 for part of the trip and the Dam area has an amazing amount of traffic, there would have to be some major restructuring at a cost of 10s of millions of dollars to even start to see any results..

  40. Wilderness Muse Avatar
    Wilderness Muse


    Unless black bears have skills unknown to most biologists I find it very difficult to believe they are a match for a sea lion in the water at or below Bonneville dam. Lions will just swim around away from the bears (who I gather would not swim to catch a lion) eating salmon/steelhead and barking in laughter. Lions will scoot off any bear accessible perch before a lumbering bear can get to them. And, what are those bears gonna eat, as you suggest – salmon BEFORE they spawn? Or, if you concentrate bears at the hatchery, and have them eat spawned out dead fish in high concentration areas isn’t that is kind of like habituating them, and creating yet another problem? I am thinking this still doesn’t solve the problems for wild stock that spawn upstream of the dams, like Marsh Creek. What am I missing in your scenario?

  41. Ryan Avatar

    “Oregon the bears are simply fenced off from the salmon spawning creeks and the dam area but at the fish hatchery right at the Oregon site of the dam there is an opportunity to have bears enter into the ecosystem.”


    You mean its a legitimate opportunity to have bears crossing 6 lanes of traffic on I-84 or 4 lanes on Highway 12? Black bears will do little to deter 800 pound california sea lions. I don’t remeber seeing seals at wolverine creek, but I rarely saw sea lions or seals in Fresh water in AK, as the ocean was more than plentiful. I saw belugas a few time in the kenai chasing silvers, but that is about all I remember. A few well placed bullets with a herd of sea lions watching will take care of the issue. They learn quickly, kind of like crows.

  42. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    Hwy 14 Ryan,

    I agree, although an intriguing idea, I can’t for the life of me see how it might work, without extensive changes, then of course the idea of concentrating bears in an area that is wildly popular with the humans, would not be a good thing.

    I don’t think there is a bear in OR or WA that is much of a match for a sea lion…

  43. Ryan Avatar

    Sorry, I never drive 14 until after Biggs Junction as it is pretty windy and treacherous before that area. Bears do eat salmon on the Wind river and few other areas in the Gorge to my knowledge. The issue is that a river that is a mile wide has a bottle neck on each side that allows for maybe 100ft wide of total passage. This creates the buffet for the sea lions. The other issue is that the sea lions are showing earlier and earlier and with the decline of the smelt population (possible ESA listing) the sea lions now eating white sturgeon at an alarming rate. Espicially oversive breeders which congregate at the dam.

  44. jdubya Avatar

    Interesting article…http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703657604575005562712284770.html

    a perfect storm for salmon recovery or a real change? probably the former.


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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