by Claire Waichler
"We cannot accept the extinction of wild salmon
We cannot take our eyes off the river
Remember what used to be here
Remember what was promised
And enact what is still possible."
These words are from Claire (Cal) Waichler, a Northwest Artists Against Extinction collaborating artist. Claire speaks about her work and why the removal of Lower Snake River dams is critical to salmon recovery, in the following essay:
The Columbia River Basin was once the most astounding salmon and steelhead watershed in the world. Before the 1840s, this river ran silver with 16 million spawning fish every year. Now, just 400,000 wild fish find their way home in the entire basin - that’s most of Idaho, Oregon and Washington, as well as parts of Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and British Columbia.
Treaties that guarantee a healthy and harvestable salmon population to the Columbia River tribes go back to 1855, when lands were ceded to non-native hands. We have not been good stewards. Our promises to retain tribal members rights to fish at “all usual and accustomed fishing places…in common with citizens” have been shattered. Instead of fish, we are all left wondering how we got to this dying river replete with dams, development, and ESA listings. So much is broken here. We are experiencing the extinction of the most iconic and important animal in the Pacific Northwest.
This is the story that salmon tell me, a lifelong resident of the Columbia River Basin, also a white settler, also a commercial salmon fisherwoman, and a lover of these lands, rivers, and people. I am awed by salmon. In high icy creeks that feed the Methow River, I’ve found spawned-out salmon rotting into the riverbanks. From the decks of fishing boats in Alaska, I’ve watched momentous runs from sustainably managed populations fill boats and bears and seals and eagles. Those salmon runs I’ve worked to catch in Alaska could have been Columbia River salmon runs, if we hadn’t dammed this stunning watershed to endangerment. A frenzy of dams built in the 1940s and 50s to provide electricity enabled the development of the Columbia. Now, some of these dams are killing us.
For decades, fish have faced long stretches of stagnant reservoirs, increased exposure to predators, toxic pollution and heat exhaustion. Following the instinct to return home, these fish have time after time rammed their sea-silvered noses into concrete barriers, some of which have no constructed fish passage. Turbines have cut these fish off from returning to their headwaters. They are stopped before they can nourish a web of 130 species. They are stopped, so we pour millions into hatcheries for fish that will never swim as they swim. They are stopped, so we forget traditions and cultural practices.
The extinction of salmon is a central plight in the Pacific Northwest. We have alternatives.
The four dams on the Snake River tributary of the Columbia are under review for removal this year (although the fight to take them out is 40 years old). These impoundments (Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite) stand in the way of the best remaining wild salmon habitat in the Columbia basin. Looking just a couple of years into the warm and murky future, these dams stand in the way of salmon survival.
Studies and plans are underway. We can engineer solutions for power production, grain transportation and irrigation that will replace the services of the four Snake River Dams. We can fund these energy and infrastructure alternatives. But salmon cannot wait another decade. This must happen now. As citizens of the Columbia River, it is our duty to read the reports, comment, and share the facts that this dam removal is both urgent and feasible. As Columbia River residents and communities, we should all build pressure to enact dam removal as part of stewarding our special corners of this watershed.
Do you love Claire Waichler’s "Free The Snake" artwork? Check our NWAAE’s online storefront to buy your favorite “Free The Snake” items!
We would love to see photos of you sporting your new NWAAE merchandise! Tag us on Instagram: @nwartistsagainstextinction, or email Abby Dalke at