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Will wild salmon go the way of the buffalo?

How are salmon like buffalo? They don't have massive furry heads; little beards don't dangle from their chins; their dorsal fins haven't turned into humps. The two don't taste anything alike.

Salmon are becoming like buffalo because we are driving them to the brink of extinction. Buffalo once roamed the prairies by the millions; now they exist in small herds in parks and on farms. Once there were millions of salmon swimming up our rivers; now many of those rivers are too dirty or warm or filled with poisons and sediment for salmon to survive.

It has become so serious that Wednesday the Pacific Fisheries Management Council canceled the early portion of the salmon season off the Oregon coast and will consider more closures in April.

Some would call it a harbinger. Before the end of this century, they believe the only wild salmon left will be those kept like curiosities, carefully guarded remnants of a lost era. Sort of like the salmon on the Tuolumne River today.

This outlook was not popular at last week's Salmonid Restoration Federation's 26th annual conference in Lodi, where most of the attendees are neck-deep in trying to find ways to restore the numbers of this incredible fish. The recent agreement to return salmon to the upper portions of the San Joaquin River prompted the conference to come to the valley for the first time.

Biologists, geomorphologists, hydrologists, geneticists and even environmental engineers (folks who use backhoes to fix a river) came to exchange information, hear experts and find better ways to help salmon. Issues ranged from the size of gravel to floodplain restoration to adaptive management models.

One of the featured speakers was Robert Lackey, a fish biologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, professor at Oregon State University and lead editor of the book/project "Salmon 2100." He considers himself pragmatic; others might say "doomsayer."

By the year 2100, said Lackey, wild salmon will be "like buffalo" -- unlikely to go extinct, but living only in "boutique" populations. We're already well on our way, he said, with a 90 percent decline from historic salmon runs. Why?

"More people, fewer fish." And even more people are on their way.

The San Joaquin, Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers are good examples. Once there were thousands of salmon; now, there are hundreds -- when we're lucky, and this year we weren't. Populations spike and crater year to year, but viewed across decades, the trend is decidedly down.

Some ascribe this year's low numbers to a failure of food to well up from the bottom of the Pacific. While populations are likely to recover moderately in coming years, the trend is toward "functional extinction."

Through "Salmon 2100," Lackey queried 33 leading salmon scientists for realistic proposals to help wild salmon populations survive. Plans vary, but all require a change in how we view and value salmon and the rivers where they once flourished. Lackey said society puts a lower priority on salmon than on clean electricity, abundant fresh food and recreational reservoirs. He suggested we recognize that the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Columbia rivers have become "industrial rivers," and that we should redirect resources into saving salmon on streams where they can thrive.

Lackey wasn't questioning the good intentions of the 300-plus conference-goers, or the validity of their efforts. But the money, effort and science should be put where it can do the most good. If we don't focus our efforts, he fears, the end results will be disappointing. At best.

Our best chance to "save" salmon, said Lackey, is to quit trying to make any stream like "it was" and shift "to what works."

That's precisely what most of those at the conference are trying to do. The Big Bend project on the Tuolumne is considered a model for creating habitat to help juvenile salmon. Improvements have been documented on the Stanislaus and there has been success in restoring Butte Creek in the Chico area. Most enthusiastically believe salmon can return to the San Joaquin below Friant Dam.

Lackey's "buffalo theory" might be accurate. Maybe we can save only remnants of our wild salmon runs. Not for the sake of the salmon, but the sake of our rivers we must try.

Dunbar is the associate editor of

The Bee. Call him at 578-2325

or e-mail