BOISE -- Federal hydropower officials buzzed two Idaho mountain rivers this week with helicopter-mounted cameras typically used for tracking illegal immigrants or finding dangerous transmission-line hotspots.
For this mission, the cameras were pointed at endangered salmon spawning grounds in an effort to pinpoint the spots where habitat restoration would do the most good.
The Bonneville Power Administration says thermal and video images captured Monday and Tuesday from a Bell helicopter 800- to 1,200-feet above the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi rivers will focus BPA-financed work like planting streamside vegetation to give young chinook or steelhead cool nooks to hide from predators.
Environmentalists complain that the effort by the BPA -- which markets energy from 31 Columbia River Basin hydroelectric dams and pays millions annually to offset their negative effects on salmon runs -- is merely distracting from a more significant issue: removal of Lower Snake River dams that kill migrating fish.
But power agency officials fighting dam breaching contend fish-passage improvements at eight Columbia and Snake dams running about $80 million yearly since the early 1990s are nearing peak effectiveness, with 90 percent or more of young fish swimming to the Pacific Ocean surviving each dam. Consequently, they said, habitat improvement like that guided by these camera images will increasingly occupy BPA's focus.
"I'm not saying the dams don't continue to impact fish, but they are substantially more innocuous than they were 30 years ago," said Bill Maslin, director of BPA fish and wildlife in Portland. "The degradation of that habitat continues. We think that's where the better opportunities are."
Since the mid-20th century, the BPA's massive dam projects have been the region's energy backbone, but also are blamed for dwindling numbers of the iconic salmon that swim hundreds of miles into Oregon, Washington and Idaho to reproduce.
Agricultural irrigation, logging, livestock grazing and human encroachment have added to fish woes on tributaries like the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi, both of which run into the Salmon River in the central Idaho mountains.
Environmental groups concede habitat restoration is laudable.
Still, Bill Sedivy, Idaho Rivers United director in Boise, said restoring Snake River salmon runs that once numbered in the millions demands something the BPA is doing its utmost to avoid: breaching four Snake River dams in eastern Washington.
"Focusing on habitat restoration to the exclusion of focusing on mainstem restoration, which is what the BPA would like to make you think we need to do, is like trying to treat a brain tumor with aspirin," Sedivy said.