Sacrificing the Salmon: A Legal History of the Decline of Columbia Basin Salmon (Full Text- Part 1 of 2)

BookWorld Publishers, 2002

426 Pages Posted: 16 Nov 2005 Last revised: 13 Oct 2017


Salmon remain the cultural and economic soul of the Pacific Northwest, a species whose very life cycle largely defines the region. At the center of the salmon region lies the Columbia River, which once supported the world's largest salmon runs and which now is home to the world's largest interconnected hydroelectric system. These massive federal and non-federal dams have devasted Columbia Basin salmon runs, some of which are now exinct, others are on life-support.

This book tells the story of the decline of the Columbia Basin salmon in the 20th century. But it begins earlier, with the signing of mid-19th century Indian treaties that promised the tribes the right of taking fish in return for ceding some 64 million acres of land to the onrushing United States. This treaty promise was actually the first in a series of promises that the salmon runs would be maintained. The book uses the promise metaphor to examine the state of salmon and surrounding legal and institutional environment over the last century-and-a-half. None of the promises have been fully kept.

Among ensuing promises was a false hope that a region-wide commitment to salmon hatcheries could replace salmon habitat lost to development, especially hydroelectric development. Another promise was the 1980 Northwest Power Act's restoration program, which once envisioned doubling Columbia Basin salmon runs. Failure of that promise led to ongoing and largely unsuccessful efforts under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to conserve the dwindling salmon runs. The book is especially critical of ESA implementation, maintaining that the listing of salmon under the statute has done much more to change ESA administration than the ESA has done to revive the salmon runs. Other promises the book examines concern the 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada, hydroelectric licensing under the Federal Power Act, and water quality protection under the Clean Water Act.

The book includes chapters on the judicial interpretation of Indian treaties, a history of dam building in the Northwest, the rise of ecosystem mangement planning, and the case for breaching four Lower Snake River dams. Concluding chapters examine the prospects for wild salmon runs in the 21st century and lessons from the decline of Columbia Basin salmon for other resources in other areas.

Keywords: natural resources law, policy, and history, environmental law, Indian law, water law, energy law

JEL Classification: K32, N51, N52, O38, Q23, Q48

Suggested Citation

Blumm, Michael C., Sacrificing the Salmon: A Legal History of the Decline of Columbia Basin Salmon (Full Text- Part 1 of 2). BookWorld Publishers, 2002, Available at SSRN:

Michael C. Blumm (Contact Author)

Lewis & Clark Law School ( email )

10015 S.W. Terwilliger Blvd.
Portland, OR 97219
United States
503-768-6824 (Phone)
503-768-6701 (Fax)

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