SAWTOOTH BASIN, Idaho — In the late summer of 1992, a solitary sockeye salmon named Lonesome Larry arrived at the Redfish Lake fish trap at the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains in central Idaho.
He had travelled 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean gaining more than 6,500 feet in elevation, swimming a gauntlet through rapids and waterfalls as he navigated fish ladders at eight gargantuan steel and concrete dams, all the while avoiding food and focusing on his journey home.
It is a long and arduous journey from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to high mountain meadows in Idaho’s Sawtooth Basin.
As a young salmon, Larry spent his early years in this beautiful high mountain lake, one of several of the basin’s lakes that are the birthplace and the end of the line for his kind. After two years in his mountain home, Larry was ready to migrate to the sea, pushed along the waterway from the mountains to the ocean — tail first.
He would spend several years, exploring unknown destination while avoiding whales, sea lions and seals before returning to Idaho to spawn and die.
When Lewis and Clark visited Idaho in 1805, the Columbia and Snake river basins were home to the world’s greatest salmon and steelhead populations. It is estimated that up to 16 million adults annually returned from the Pacific Ocean to their ancestral spawning beds in the rivers and tributaries in the Pacific Northwest.
In the 1880s, observers reported lakes and streams in the Stanley Basin teeming with the red-backed fish with returns that were estimated between 25,000 and 35,000. Today, a minuscule percentage of the original salmon runs persist. Some, including the Snake River population of coho salmon, are extinct and gone forever.
Earlier last century, federally owned and operated dams destroyed salmon habitat and devastated much of the Columbia Basin’s salmon populations including those in the Snake and Salmon rivers. More than 200 hundred dams have been built in the Columbia and Snake rivers and their tributaries. These massive concrete structures block access to upstream habitat, inundate spawning and rearing grounds with sediment, decrease the river’s flow, increase water temperatures and support greatly increased populations of predator fish such as the pike minnow.
The Lower Granite Dam is the last dam on the Snake River before its confluence with the Columbia River in eastern Washington.
A modern-day miracle
By 1991, sockeye salmon in Idaho were practically gone. The annual returns of these ancient travelers were in the single digits. Everything changed that year when the federal government placed the sockeye salmon on the Endangered Species List. Thus began a massive effort to save the salmon.
By the time Larry arrived in his home waters of the Sawtooth Valley, his kind were in grave danger. In a fateful turn, in 1992, a dozen or so sockeye were seen at Lower Granite Dam, the last dam on the Snake before its confluence with the Columbia in eastern Washington. Larry was the only one to make it to Redfish Lake.
Lonesome Larry became part of a captive breeding program operated by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG). It was a last ditch and desperate effort to save the Northwest’s most endangered salmon from extinction.
Once on the verge of extinction, the sockeye salmon of Redfish Lake at least have a chance of survival, thanks to the relentless effort of Lonesome Larry.
After his first milking, biologists injected a hormone pellet into Larry and he generated more sperm for nearly a month. With modern science offering newly developed preservation options, his milt was frozen with liquid nitrogen and cryogenically stored at various hatcheries throughout the Northwest. For years, his potent, life-giving offering sat on ice, waiting for a miracle.
In 1996, that miracle arrived with the return of several female sockeye and more in 1997, giving Larry a chance to breed.
Although in a captive brood stock program managed by IDFG hatchery biologists, Larry spawned hope for the future of Snake River salmon. His genes are now scattered throughout every new generation of sockeye that return to the basin.
A happy anniversary
This year is the 22th anniversary of Lonesome Larry’s return to Idaho. Salmon are the only species that travels 900 miles from the ocean to the Stanley Basin’s lakes and streams. Larry’s solo journey helped jump-start a multi-phased effort to save Snake River salmon from certain extinction.
As of August 28, 2014, the Sawtooth Basin has seen the return of 1,122 sockeye salmon to the region with a projection of 1,400 returnees by October. Larry’s progeny are the result of several fortunate circumstances and hard work by federal, state and tribal agencies that have assisted with the return of this mighty swimmer.
Through his unrelenting effort, and will to survive, Larry has helped to reclaim the rivers, creeks and lakes of the Sawtooth Basin for generation of salmon to come.
About 1,400 sockeye salmon spawners are expected to return to Redfish Lake and will soon be sharing the task of recovering a species that 22 years ago was all but extinct.
You can visit Lonesome Larry on display at Idaho Department of Fish and Game headquarters in Boise.