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The Laura Moore Cunningham

Virgil Moore Interview

Virgil MooreVirgil Moore is the director of the Idaho Fish & Game Department. One of his first jobs was working at the fish hatchery outside Stanley. Bruce Reichert conducted this interview in the summer of 2012.

How did the Sawtooth hatchery get its start?
The Sawtooth hatchery was actually a fairly recent creation. It is part of the mitigation responsibility for lower Snake River dams. And it uses Bonneville Power Administration funding through what we call the Lower Snake River Compensation Plan; and it's one of several facilities, but it is our primary facility in the upper Salmon River country; and it was located there so that we could get maximum exposure of those mitigation fish to the anglers so they would have the opportunity to make that work.

Prior to the Sawtooth hatchery being there, the Department of Fish and Game had that property. We had a couple of ponds there that we would put chinook in to acclimate and rear out in earthen ponds. They had terrible fish health issues, and that was in the 1960's and ‘70s before we really understood some of what was going on. They were never very successful. And so that site was the site for the Sawtooth hatchery.

And that's where you got your start?
I started with the Department of Fish and Game in 1977, after I finished up my graduate work on steelhead at Idaho State University. I got on a project there as a temporary, walking every tributary to the upper Stanley basin, estimating how much gravel there was in there that wasn't being used by spawning salmon. That information was then used by the Department to go out and seek funding to try to fix the irrigation diversions that were blocking that. If you remember the history, some of those diversions were total blocks to all of the anadromous fish — even in the upper main Salmon River — and we pretty much rectified all of that.

That's an example of the collaborative work that went on. The funding for that came from outside of the Department. That information was then used to try to secure the support from land owners, Forest Service, the funding entities, to get that work done. It took decades to get that work done — and we're still to some degree doing some of that work up there.

"It was a head-butting experience as we tried to move forward. But once we began working with ranchers on demonstration projects, once we began working collaboratively with the Forest Service and evaluating and learning together, we began to see the transition through that. The conflicts over that are pretty much gone."So this hatchery is significant for the future of salmon in this area?
For the upper Salmon River, it definitely is. The only other upper Salmon River hatchery program we have is at Pahsimeroi, and that is an Idaho Power mitigation facility. We have satellite facilities. We don't rear any fish, but we capture and stock a few fish in the east fork of the Salmon, but that's part of the Sawtooth facility complex that takes care of the upper Salmon and the east fork of the Salmon.

In 1978 the Fish & Game Commission closed all salmon fishing in the upper Salmon River. It was a huge issue. There were demonstrations and fish-ins in Salmon, Idaho. A lot of consternation by the public that you can't take my salmon fishing away from me, but the Commission took that action as a conservation initiative, to be sure that our spawning fish — the few that were left — were taken care of. That was just prior to us really getting into the Sawtooth hatchery and beginning to build that.

The Pahsimeroi hatchery was there, but it wasn't really functional. We were learning a lot about how to operate our hatcheries, to get fish back, while we were learning how to manage the main stem and the migration corridor.

That is history. Then 30 years later, in 2008, we opened a salmon season. Now we always had some steelhead in there, but the salmon fishery itself is what is so iconic to the river named Salmon. And to be able to finally, after 30 years, open that back up in 2008 for salmon fishing was particularly satisfying to me, having been there when we closed it. It certainly makes you realize that within a career span, you can get things done that are important. And we have been able to maintain some level of salmon fishing since 2008 up there. Not always easy to do, and not a large amount of harvest, but certainly still insuring that legacy continues.

Is this an example of successful collaboration by governmental entities?
I'll give you an example. We were trying to figure out what to do for salmon and steelhead in the Stanley Basin; this encompassed the period of the ‘70s and the ‘80s. The ‘80s were a real eye-opener for fishery science and range conservation, relative to the impact that grazing can have on riparian areas; and the Sawtooth NRA did not prohibit those activities. It prioritized recreation and conservation for salmon and steelhead. And we were very active working up there to try to get proper grazing plans in place.

It was a head-butting experience as we tried to move forward. But once we began working with ranchers on demonstration projects, once we began working collaboratively with the Forest Service and evaluating and learning together, we began to see the transition through that.

The conflicts over that are pretty much gone. The practices are well accepted and understood, that they don't exclude that multiple use of the grazing resources up there; but it certainly has to be managed slightly differently to insure that we get all of the benefits that were expected when Congress enacted the SNRA.

Ranchers seem to be excited about the recent successes in the Lemhi valley.
Absolutely. The upper Salmon basin has been a huge focus for years in a collaborative fashion, to work on habitat and water flow issues. Traditionally, collaboration was the Department, the land management agency and those affected. Now it's the Tribes, the county, the land owners, the Farm Bureau, the Cattle Association, the BLM, the Forest Service, Noah Fisheries. I could probably go on, and they are all active as a community working together in that upper Stanley Basin, to find solutions that keep working lands working, while meeting the needs of the wildlife resources that we have up there, particularly our salmon.

Sockeye at Redfish Lake [Credit: Aaron Kunz]In the Sawtooth region we have three ocean-going fish.
We have the three native anadromous fish: sockeye salmon, chinook salmon and steelhead — the anadromous form of the rainbow trout, essentially. And each of those is unique in its own way. Certainly, chinook salmon is the iconic fish for the Basin up there; and that's because they're so visible. They come back in the fall. Right now you can go up there and see them on the gravel spawning and completing their life histories, sacrificing their carcasses back to the nutrients for the juveniles to utilize, to get big enough to go back to the ocean and complete the life cycle again.

Sockeye are a salmon from the Salmon River and they're red fish from Redfish Lake. Sockeye have defied the odds. They're the underdog of the fish world, and we came so close to losing that group of fish. In the ‘90s they were listed, the first of our salmon and steelhead that were listed as endangered, an imminent extinction risk.

The story of our single male coming back that had been nicknamed Lonesome Larry, we still have his carcass hanging on the wall as a symbol of the fact we got that low. Working collaboratively with the Shoshone Bannock Tribe, we were able to build the support to recover these fish. And certainly we're not close to recovery, but the imminent extinction threats are gone. We have the life histories secured sufficiently and are taking measures with our new sockeye hatchery to insure that we have thousands of adults returning, that can spawn and rear in fresh water and experience the whole migration and ocean rearing, instead of keeping them inside of the Eagle hatchery to raise to adults so we can strip the eggs out of them. And so it's a huge success.

So you are optimistic?
I am. I believe that through the collaborative efforts that during my career span since 1977 in Stanley Basin, with the research and management efforts, with the help of our elected officials and appointed officials insuring that we have the financial resources and the policies in place that allow us to get this work done, I think we're learning how to manage the Columbia Basin so that our precious resources that are there are taken care of.

Our hatchery resources are a mitigation debt owed to the people of Idaho for that hydro power. We've got to be sure that that hatchery resource is managed properly so that our wild listed stocks are properly taken care of, and we are doing that. We're very close to insuring that we don't have negative influences from our fish management programs for that mitigation debt interfering with our abilities to recover these wild stocks over all.

Sawtooth Hatchery [Credit: Aaron Kunz]It's a tremendous amount of science and policy development that has occurred, and the engagement within the basin of the Tribes has been a huge part of adding to that, both from a financial and a science base. Our Tribes have become very advanced and major players in our salmon and steelhead management in this state.

And what about the Forest Service?
I think we as partners often have disagreements how to do management, but not over the need for management. And I think those will continue, given the slightly different orientations we have; but certainly without the Forest Service and the BLM and the counties being there from a policy and land management standpoint, we couldn't have achieved what we've achieved today.

One of the things that makes the SNRA unique is it encompasses a breadth of values for Idahoans. You know what the origin was — let's make it a national park — but because hunting isn't allowed in national parks, Idahoans withdrew from that and looked for a unique opportunity to insure the existence of this landscape, as is, but with the full breadth of values being able to be used up there that they traditionally have.

The SNRA and the combination of the wilderness and the back country areas up there seem to have got that balance taken care of.