Where have our salmon gone?

For thousands of years, salmon have been integral to the health of humans, wildlife, fish, habitat and water quality in the Columbia River Basin. Salmon were once abundant in the upper Columbia, Sanpoil, and Spokane Rivers but have disappeared because their habitats were blocked by the construction of hydroelectric dams. This loss wounded our region, the Columbia Basin, and even the Pacific Ocean, changing the lands, water, and people, altering ecologies and economies. UCUT is working to restore salmon by supporting their reintroduction into the upper Columbia River.

Additional Resources

What happened to the salmon?

The Columbia River once produced salmon runs estimated at 10 to 16 million fish — among the largest runs on earth.  Nearly half of these fish called our region, and rivers upstream, home.  Today, only a fraction return to spawn in the basin. None return to our waters.  Salmon populations have dwindled for a number of reasons:


Before regulations were introduced, commercial fisheries largely driven by the canning industry, depleted Columbia River salmon runs. Harvesting tens of millions of pounds of fish decimated populations. Large Chinook originating from our region were among the first fish targeted.  As our populations declined commercial operations focused on other salmon species. Current fisheries can still have negative impacts on all salmon and steelhead of the Basin, directly and indirectly.

Blocked migrations

In 1910 the construction of Little Falls Dam blocked returning adult salmon from reaching the productive Spokane River watershed. In 1942, Grand Coulee Dam was built on the Columbia River, followed by Chief Joseph Dam a short distance downstream — both without fish passage. In 1964, the Columbia River Treaty resulted in further dam development in the U.S. and Canada. In the process of harnessing the river, substantial habitat was inundated by reservoirs and blocked by dams, eliminating major runs of salmon and steelhead.

Loss of salmon wounded indigenous people

The Columbia River Basin was home to 22 indigenous communities. Salmon are sacred to the native peoples of the Northwest. The loss of salmon changed the way we live, impacting our religion, lifestyle, culture, economy, and health. When salmon were blocked from our waters in the upper Columbia, tribes and First Nations did not receive restitution — and have not to this day. Still, a century-wide schism exists between our heritage and our modern society.

Why bring the salmon back?

Ecosystem benefits

Salmon are critical to a healthy ecosystem. They are an essential food source for many animals, including bears, eagles, and orcas that forage off the Washington coast. Their bodies don’t just feed animals but also provide nourishment for rivers, forests, and humans. The return of salmon will improve the health of local habitat and waters by restoring the ecosystem processes this keystone species supports. Learn more about ecosystem-based function.

Boosting the economy

This restoration stands to benefit the local industry, bolstering the economy and creating new job opportunities from labor and engineering to recreation and hospitality. More salmon in the ocean and Columbia River will also support the commercial and recreational fishing industries. We will be using experimental populations for reintroduction, not fish listed under the Endangered Species Act, so we won’t be introducing regulations along with fish. Learn more about the economic value of the Columbia River Basin’s natural assets.

Reclaiming Culture

It is time to right historic wrongs. Salmonare integral to indigenous people’s traditions and spiritual beliefs. Native communities and their rights were disregarded when the dams were built, fundamentally altering our way of life and our culture. Restoring salmon is the legal and ethical thing to do.

Honoring salmon

Considered a First Food in our culture, salmon is said to have offered up his body to feed the people. In turn, salmon deserve our protection. It’s time to unite and help the salmon as he has helped us.

Reintroduction is possible

In 2015, the Columbia Basin Tribes and First Nations developed a joint paper  to inform the federal governments and other sovereigns and stakeholders on how salmon can be reintroduced into the upper Columbia River basin. The approach pursues reintroduction in four phases of research and evaluation. Since then, upper Columbia Tribes and their partners have performed various research projects. In 2019, UCUT and partners completed a report on the first phase and are proceeding to Phase 2.

Healthy donor stocks for reintroduction

Based on assessments of donor stocks, we will pursue summer Chinook and Sockeye Salmon for reintroduction efforts. We plan to use healthy stocks from downstream sources, rather than using struggling populations that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Habitat awaits the return of salmon

Our evaluation work shows there are hundreds of miles of streams with habitat that is available for the return of salmon. This habitat is able to support tens of thousands of adult salmon and millions of rearing juveniles. As water temperatures continue to rise, salmon populations will depend on these cooler habitats in the upper Columbia basin to survive.

Advancements in fish passage technology

Fish passage technology has improved significantly in the past several years. There are a number of options for getting fish, juveniles and adults, safely over dams that can work with existing infrastructure.

Support salmon reintroduction

UCUT, our member tribes, and our partners are planning and advocating for a future with salmon. We need to restore the Columbia River for future generations — for the benefit of all.

And you can help. Reach out to your local elected officials and let them know restoring salmon into the upper Columbia is important to you.

3 things to ask your elected officials to do:

  • Support best science, research, habitat studies, climate change
  • Support fish-friendly power sources and fish passage technology
  • Support adding Columbia River Systems Operations in the Columbia River Treaty


Contact a member of UCUT staff at 509.838.1057 or [email protected] 

Check out our Frequently Asked Questions section.



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United by Water

The Value of Natural Capital in the Columbia River Basin

Answering the Call: UCUT Canoes Arrive at Standing Rock

Climate Change Workshop

Protecting Lake Coeur d’Alene

Coeur d’Alene Tribe Forest Carnivore Survey

UCUT Video Gallery

Canoe Journey and Gathering at Kettle Falls

Fish Reintroduction into the U.S. And Canadian Upper Columbia River

Upper Columbia River Basin Fish Passage and Reintroduction Project – Phase 1

Treaty Talks: A Journey up the Columbia River for People and Salmon

Columbia River Listed among Most Endangered Rivers of 2015

20 Year Report

United for the Benefit of All

Grand Coulee and the Forgotten Tribe

UCUT and Bonneville Power Administration Partnership

Tribal Salmon Management, Harvesting and Sharing

Forests and Fish Report

Drumheller Springs Natural Park

Pow Wow and Community Outreach