Back from the Brink

Not every endangered species is doomed. Thanks to tough laws, dedicated researchers, and plenty of money and effort, success stories abound

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Moral? “We’ve got to make landowners allies in species conservation,” says Colin Rowan of Environmental Defense, a group that helped forge the SafeHarbor concept. More than 320 private landowners are enrolled in the SafeHarbor program, contributing to the protection of 35 threatened and endangered species on more than three million acres.



Tinkering With Dams
Year listed: 1994

Maximum water temperature fry can withstand: 57.5ºF

Salmon runs have dropped precipitously along the PacificCoast—victims of dams, waterway diversions and riverside habitat destruction. But along the Sacramento River in California, winter chinook salmon runs have grown from a low of just 186 fish in 1994 to more than 10,000 this past winter.

In this case, the salmon’s decline can be linked to too much concrete. In 1945, Shasta Dam in Northern California shortened the length of river accessible to salmon, forcing the fish to spawn farther downstream. Next, the Red Bluff Diversion Dam, built in 1964 about 45 miles below the Shasta, near Redding, started blocking salmon from migrating up or down the river. Then, during a drought, Shasta Dam released warm water into the river in the summers of 1976 and 1977, to keep the streams flowing. The outcome for baby chinook was predictable: the fry fried.

In 1985, scientists petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to classify the fish as endangered. NMFS officials ruled that although the fish was decidedly in trouble, a formal listing under the ESA wasn’t necessary. An Earthjustice attorney sued. While the case was pending on appeal, in 1990, U.S. officials classified the California winter run salmon as threatened.

Yet chinook populations in the Sacramento River continued to drop, and after another petition the fish was reclassified as endangered in 1994. The ESA then mandated, among other engineering changes, that Shasta Dam operators install a device that would pump deeper—and thus colder— water into the river. The ESA listing also compelled the federal government to clean up one of its worst Superfund sites, at Iron Mountain Mine near Redding, which had been contributing to salmon deaths by leaching heavy metals into the river. All told, federal and state agencies have spent more than $200 million to revive the salmon’s winter run.



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