Wednesday, May 22, 2024


Reintroducing Chinook Salmon above Grand Coulee Dam


Chinook salmon have not been swimming in the waters of the Upper Columbia River above Grand Coulee Dam since it was built in 1941 but several Native American tribes in our region are working on bringing them back.

I recently had a chance to chat with Conor Giorgi, the Anadromous Program Manager at

Spokane Tribal Fisheries, about this subject. I asked Conor why no fish ladder was installed at Grand Coulee Dam so the salmon could get past the dam like others on the Columbia River.

Giorgi said a fish ladder was planned for the dam but as the dam grew bigger and taller, the construction of a fish ladder became unfeasible. There were efforts made after the dam was constructed to trap Chinook salmon at Rock Island Dam near Wenatchee and transport the fish above Grand Coulee Dam but the efforts to sustain the Chinook salmon in Lake Roosevelt and further north into Canada failed within a few years of the dam being built.

Grand Coulee Dam is not the only dam without a fish ladder. The next dam downstream, Chief Joseph Dam, which was built in 1950, also lacks a fish ladder and all migratory salmon passage has been blocked upstream of this dam near Bridgeport to the headwaters of the river in British Columbia.

Asked about the possibility of installing fish ladders at these two dams now, Giorgi said they would be unlikely to work because the fish would simply have to expend too much energy attempting to make it past these dams. Instead, they are trapping salmon and hauling them above Grand Coulee Dam. However, they are not necessarily releasing them right above the dam.

Giorgi points out Lake Roosevelt is 150 miles long and the Spokane Tribe, in partnership with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to release the trapped salmon in multiple locations in the Upper Columbia and tributaries above the dam, to include the Spokane River watershed.

Giorgi went on to explain the Upper Columbia tribes are taking the lead on this project because, “They have connections with the salmon that go back millennia. The (Chinook) are not just a food source, they are a staple of their cultural and spiritual well-being.”

Efforts to reintroduce salmon into river drainages above Grand Coulee Dam have been ongoing since 2015. The first adult Chinook were released into this area in 2019 and the first juvenile Chinook were released into a creek on the Spokane Tribal Reservation in 2017. In 2022, 146 adult Chinook were released into the Spokane River, and some of these fish were released into a part of the river that had not seen the presence of these fish since 1911 when Little Falls Dam was built.

The specific stock of fish being used are summer Chinook salmon because of their abundance in the Upper Columbia. Biologists tagged 752 yearling salmon in 2017 that were released to migrate downstream. Of these fish, only 234 were detected passing over Bonneville Dam and only 75 were detected in the Columbia River estuary near Astoria. However, one of these fish made it back as a spawning adult in the summer of 2019. The salmon made it back to the Chief Joseph Hatchery fish ladder and the remains of the fish were transferred to Tshimakain Creek where it was released as a juvenile fish two years earlier.

This second phase of salmon reintroduction above Grand Coulee Dam is expected to go on for some 20 years and with any luck, we’ll be seeing healthy populations of these iconic salmon swimming in the waters and tributaries of the Columbia River in harvestable numbers above the dam by that time or sooner. To find out more about this project go to

John Kruse – and



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