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Lonesome Larry: An Unsung Hero

Sockeye Salmon (Credit: Timothy Knepp/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Twenty years ago, a single sockeye salmon traveled 900 miles up the Columbia and Snake Rivers. It was an epic journey; travelling against the current the fish climbed more than 6,500 feet in elevation and up the “fish ladders” of eight dams.  Bears, eagles, bobcats and other predators tried to grab this fish along the way, but he was far too slippery for them.

Sockeye make this trip to spawn and then die. But when he arrived at the end of his marathon swim, Idaho’s Redfish Lake, there were no female salmon to be found. He was the only sockeye to complete the trip in 1992, a tragic low point for a species that was once so common (historically, sockeye in Idaho numbered at least 30,000). The daughter of a fish hatchery technician named him Lonesome Larry.

Larry was captured and then “milked;” biologists used hormones to keep him generating sperm for a month and then placed his milt on ice. And then, after he died Larry was stuffed and mounted on the wall of a nature center in Boise.

The story is the stuff of legends, worthy of at least a folk song or two. Except that even Woody Guthrie, the legendary folk singer himself, was lined up against poor Larry. Guthrie, who would have turned 100 last month, was down on his luck in 1941, having bounced from Los Angeles to New York City and back. He ended up getting a job with the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) but not until after his car was repossessed.

BPA hired Guthrie for a month as an “information consultant,” and a staffer was dispatched to drive Guthrie around the region to write songs and promote BPA’s dams—the same ones that Larry had to navigate. These dams generated controversy from their inception—residents of the northwest U.S. were not convinced that they were needed, and Guthrie was hired to help promote them.

70 years later, the dams are still the target of advocates but the reasons have switched. In Guthrie’s time, the opponent was a competing private hydropower company; today, the opponents are environmentalists, sportsmen, and the outdoor tourism industry who want to make life easier for Larry’s progeny.  The primary target is four dams on the lower Snake River; BPA insists that these dams are necessary.

Opponents of the dams argue that the power generated by the dams ebbs in the summer and winter, when the water flow is at its lowest and the region’s demand for power demand peaks.  Studies have also shown that the electricity generated by these four dams can be matched by improving regional conservation measures.

Lonesome Larry’s singular journey was the low water mark for his species.  His milt was used to fertilize eggs laid by several females that made the trek to Redfish Lake in 1996 and 1997 and the population has rebounded somewhat. More than one thousand sockeyes are projected to reach the Redfish Lake region this month, a tremendous increase from Larry’s year.

But while breeding programs, habitat conservation measures, and efforts to help the salmon swim past the dams (ranging from improving the fish ladders to trucking juveniles around the dams) have helped the species, Snake River sockeye remain endangered.

Repeated calls to bring all stakeholders together and plan a comprehensive long-term plan for the species to fully recover remain unanswered. And climate change presents a new barrier for the salmon to overcome, one that does not come with a built-in fish ladder. It has now been one year since a federal judge declared the current federal plan to save the fish illegal and, in many ways, an effective solution seems to be very far upstream.

But still, if Larry can make it, maybe his species can too. The ballad for this unsung hero has yet to be finished.