The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Press Machine

Notwithstanding a lack of legal success, Orofino’s efforts put pressure on the fishery agencies to cobble up some sort of claimed benefit from the Dworshak releases. Thus on August 30, 1995, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, led by one of the leading progenitors of the Great Salmon Hoax, Fred Olney, put out a press release declaring that releases from Dworshak Reservoir in July and August 1995 had produced a “dramatic increase in survival of endangered fall chinook salmon smolts in the Snake River”. 28 The Service announced “minimum survival figures” of 47-55% for summer 1995, over and above a rate of 7% for 1992.29 The Service corralled the sheepish agency scientists in a room and presented them to reporters to discuss the findings.

Alerted to the press conference by a friendly agency source, we worked hard to educate the media that these claims were bogus. The news media did manage to report some criticism of these findings, including Bruce Lovelin’s observation that “the big difference between the two years is not the amount of water released from the reservoir, but the fact that natural river conditions are much better this year”.30 August of 1995 was, in the words of one local observer, "the coldest, wettest August in the past ten years".

At the press conference, it became apparent that the numbers reported were not estimates of survival at all, but changes in the percentage of fish detected at Lower Granite Dam after tagging further upstream.

There are several logical problems with assuming that because detections were higher, survival was higher. Much of the effect could have been accounted for by temperature differences between 1992 and 1995. When river temperatures are high (as in 1992), juvenile salmon tend to be found lower in the water column. Fish lower in the water column are less likely to be swept into the bypass system, so the cooler weather by itself produced higher detections.

It is true that the releases of cold water from Dworshak Reservoir were large enough to lower the water temperature downstream in Lower Granite Reservoir. There may well be some benefit to anadromous fish from lowering water temperatures, but because of the misdirected attention to supposed flow effects, no one has tried to figure out how much benefit can be obtained from reducing temperatures—and determining whether such benefits offset the adverse effects of colder temperature on smolt growth rates.

The detection devices had also changed significantly between 1992 and 1995. In 1994, extended length traveling screens were installed at Lower Granite Dam. Although the screens had only been installed on one turbine unit, it was a turbine unit in the center of the dam where most of the fish were concentrated. It is these screens that collect most of the fish and direct them through the detectors.

The extended length traveling screens are a subject of extensive scientific research. At this point, there is no conclusive study concerning their efficiency at sweeping fish into the bypass system. Preliminary data, however, indicates that they are perhaps twice as effective as the conventional screens. This too accounted for the increase in detections at Lower Granite Dam.

Finally, there was a critical variable known as fish condition. The premise of these studies is that one selects a group of fish, injects them with the PIT tags and looks to see how many are detected downriver at the first dam. However, juvenile salmon suffer a known amount of handling mortality. This is one of the principal excuses that the states and tribes have always used to try and shut down PIT tag research when it began to show evidence that their strongly-held beliefs on smolt migration were invalid.31

In warmer water temperatures, the effects of handling mortality are larger. Thus, in a cooler year, more of the fish will tend to survive the handling experience quite apart from any change in survival as they migrate through the reservoir. None of these facts were brought out at the press conference. A few reporters had the wit to ask how much of this change actually had to do with the claimed operation. The responses from the scientists were equivocal.

In the wake of the press conference, James Grunke called up the Fish and Wildlife Service Field Office in Idaho. He was shocked to discover that there was no "study" at all. What had happened was that the fish advocates occupying "policy" positions in the service had learned of the preliminary data showing that detections were up. They seized upon the data and claimed that it was the result of the operation they had promoted. The scientists would draw no such conclusions. They stressed to Mr. Grunke that all that was available was raw data.

Nevertheless, from the standpoint of the Orofino community, the damage was done. Yet another effort to promote the Great Salmon Hoax had succeeded.

Several months later, after Steve Cramer released the results of his study (discussed in Chapter 12) showing that PIT-tag detections at McNary Dam had dropped by nearly half after excessive spill caused high levels of gas supersaturation, the very same individuals who had proclaimed the success of Orofino releases based on PIT tag detections now loudly proclaimed that Cramer’s study was meaningless, because it only showed the results of detections, not true survival.

And in 1996, we learned that the 1995 rise in summer detections was apparently a local effect at Lower Granite Dam only, and was not present at Snake River dams further downriver.32 No one seems very interested in pinning down the phenomenon. For all we know, the PIT-tag detectors at Lower Granite were malfunctioning for a while.

28 “Craig calls FWS Dworshak smolts study ‘Giant Leap of Faith’”, Clearwater Tribune, Sept. 7, 1995.

29 M. Wickline, “Drawdowns aiding smolts, agency claims”, Lewiston Tribune, Aug. 31, 1996.

30 Id.

31 See, e.g., Memorandum, M. DeHart to Fish Passage Advisory Committee Members Liaison Group, “FPAC recommendations to reduce smolt handling and marking and concerns regarding the PIT Tag workshop”, Sept. 23, 1994; Letter, D. DeHart to NMFS, April 1994, cited in B. Rudolph, “Huge PIT-Tag Study Planned by Long-Time Critics; NMFS Has Doubts”, Clearing Up, Dec. 23, 1996, at 6.

32 ISG, Return to the River 222.

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