In 1992, four Snake River sockeye made their way through eight dams, past nets and predators and on to their home in Idaho's Sawtooth Valley. One male completed the final climb up the Snake and Salmon rivers to a weir on Redfish Lake Creek, a wakeup call for Idahoans and making the fish the symbol...

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BOISE, Idaho — Sockeye entered the Columbia River in recent weeks, beginning a 900-mile migration that nearly ended 20 years ago.

Only four Snake River sockeye made their way through eight dams and past nets and predators in 1992, a year after the fish that makes its home in Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley was listed as endangered. One male completed the final climb up the Snake and Salmon rivers to a weir on Redfish Lake Creek on Aug. 4.

Allyson Coonts, the 7-year-old daughter of Sawtooth Hatchery technician Phil Coonts, named the sockeye Lonesome Larry. When then-Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus put the stuffed fish on his office wall, Lonesome Larry became the symbol of the entire Snake and Columbia salmon-restoration program.

“What took it national was an Andrus interview with New York Times reporter Tim Egan,” said Andy Brunelle, who was Andrus’ natural-resources policy staffer.

In the early 1990s, the futures of the system’s salmon and steelhead species looked grim after 150 years of overfishing, dam-building, habitat destruction and even poisoning. The Snake River sockeye effort appeared especially quixotic.

Today, threats such as warming waters and ocean acidification still threaten the future of the Columbia’s salmon. But improved ocean conditions, court-ordered upgrading of migration conditions through the dams and other changes have dramatically increased the returns of all salmon.

A big rebound

No turnaround is more amazing than that of Idaho’s Snake River sockeye. Since 2008, more than 650 sockeye have returned annually to the Sawtooth Valley, peaking in 2010 with 1,355, the most since the 1950s, before four dams were built in Washington.

Biologists predict 1,000 could return this year, and productivity of the natural fish that spawn in Redfish has increased to a point that they are replacing themselves, said Mike Peterson, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game research biologist.

This reversal could not have happened without the work of a coalition of federal, state and tribal teams. But it also needed the broad bipartisan support that came in part because of the story of Lonesome Larry.

He, along with 15 other sockeye that returned in the early 1990s, held the valuable genetic code of the southernmost sockeye population, which is able to travel more than 800 miles and climb to 6,500 feet above sea level.

Federal, state and tribal biologists had decided to collect the remaining Redfish Lake sockeye and begin a last-ditch captive breeding program to preserve the stock and prevent extinction.

Sockeye returns had dropped to double and single digits in the 1980s. Idaho Fish and Game purposely had poisoned sockeye and its cousin the kokanee out of Alturas, Pettit and Yellow Belly lakes in the Sawtooths in the 1960s to replace them with trout. Yellow Belly was poisoned again in 1990 to allow a trophy cutthroat fishery.

Attempts in the 1970s to replant sockeye in the lakes failed miserably. When Keith Johnson arrived at Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game in 1988 from Alaska, hatchery programs were viewed largely as raising fish for anglers to catch. He was swimming against the current thinking of the time.

“There was a different philosophy about hatcheries then,” said Johnson, a fish pathologist and researcher.

Idaho Rivers United, a salmon advocacy group, was pushing biologists to leave the fish alone. Bumper stickers simplified it to “wild sex for wild fish.” This week, Idaho Rivers is kicking off a seasonlong campaign to celebrate the story of Lonesome Larry and the success of the captive breeding program.

“This is one of the epic nature stories of our time,” said Greg Stahl, an Idaho Rivers spokesman. “At the same time, natural returns of sockeye are still only in the hundreds instead of the thousands we need.”

Young activist

Allyson Coonts was one of a generation of Idahoans who grew up with salmon as part of their life. After the last dam was built in 1975, salmon numbers tumbled in Idaho, fishing seasons closed, and the oceangoing fish almost were forgotten by all but the state’s Indian tribes.

But after the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe petitioned the federal government to list Snake River sockeye under the Endangered Species Act, the fish returned to the consciousness of Idahoans. As a first-grader, Coonts wrote about two sockeye returning to spawn at home.

Now 28 and attending medical school in Portland, Coonts remembers going to sockeye vigils at Redfish Lake and writing a letter to President Clinton asking him to do something about the dams.

“He wrote me a nice letter back,” she said.

She remembers releasing some of the first adult sockeye raised in the captive breeding program into Redfish Lake with Andrus and actress Jamie Lee Curtis. “She told me I reminded her of her daughter,” Coonts said.

She was picked to release the fish, her father said, because she named Larry. She doesn’t recall that, but her father and Johnson say they remember it as if it were yesterday.

Lonesome Larry’s contribution to sockeye recovery lives on in more than his story. Had he been a female, biologists simply might have released her into Redfish because they had little sperm available.

But because the salmon was a male, they were able to inject a hormone pellet into him after the first milking process so that he produced sperm for nearly a month. They then split the supply and sent some to the University of Idaho and Washington State University to be cryogenically stored.

That allowed biologists to use Larry’s sperm on thousands of eggs in 1996 and 1997, spreading his genes throughout a population that is becoming more genetically diverse with every generation. About 6 percent of the Redfish sockeye population today has Lonesome Larry genes.

Many more sockeye have since been brought into the genetic mix. A residual population of sockeye, distinct from the kokanee, was discovered not only in Redfish but also possibly in Alturas.

And as the numbers have risen, mortality through the rivers and in the Pacific has dropped. The increased number of smolts that leave the Sawtooth Basin — 150,000 to 200,000 from hatcheries and the lakes — reduces the percentage killed by predators and turbines.

“It comes down to safety in numbers,” said Peterson, Fish and Game’s research biologist on the sockeye program.

While Eagle Hatchery, near Boise, is the center of the program today, work continues on the Springfield hatchery in eastern Idaho. When completed, 1 million sockeye smolts will be added to the mix.

But what matters for recovery is the number of smolts that come from naturally spawning sockeye in Redfish and the other Sawtooth lakes. As many as 20,000 to 30,000 naturally spawned smolts are expected to leave Redfish this year and make the long trip downstream to the Pacific.

If they return at the same rate as biologists have seen the past two years, that could mean 500 or more natural sockeye returning, in addition to hatchery fish.

Tom Stuart, who owns a motel in Stanley and is a board member of Idaho Rivers United, said it will take removing four dams on the Snake River in Washington to recover sockeye. That’s not expected to happen for years, if ever.

“Scientists say that we need 2,000 natural-origin sockeye returning for eight consecutive years before we can even think about removing the species from the Endangered Species list,” Stuart said.

Peterson doesn’t disagree that more migration improvements are needed. But add 1 million smolts to raise more adults to naturally spawn, and the sockeye program moves beyond simply preventing extinction.

“We are basically to a point in this program where we are trying to convert from a genetic conservation program to a recovery program,” he said.