July 15, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The dwellers of the Grande Ronde River Basin face a long and arduous round-trip journey from home to the Pacific Ocean, and as the years have passed, fewer and fewer have survived the trip.

This year more spring Chinook salmon have come back than in the recent past, and the Imnaha River was opened to salmon fishing for the first time in recent memory. Those who believe and hope that the return marks a trend for future populations may be disappointed, say some biologists.

No, its not a trend, said Brad Smith, a biologist in the Wallowa office of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. One or two years do not make a trend.

A look at the numbers shows that the salmon of the Grande Ronde River and Catherine Creek have a long way to go to catch up even to the 1992 levels, and those numbers are a far cry from the populations of 40 or 50 years ago.

Many fish that left the Grande Ronde basin earlier this spring are doomed, thanks to the low spring rainfall that produced low river flows and led to a decision by the Bonneville Power Administration to reduce drastically the water spills over the Columbia River dams.

With eight dams between the Grande Ronde River and the ocean, salmon have a dangerous trip, at best.

The danger can be reduced when the tributaries such as the Grande Ronde River have well-developed fish habitat, leading to higher numbers of healthy young fish beginning their journey, said Paul Boehne, a fisheries biologist with the Forest Service.

I like to compare fish habitat to a five-star hotel, he said. If we can maintain a five-star hotel, theres fresh water survival.

Even with the increased numbers of fish in the rivers of Northeast Oregon, the main stem of the Grande Ronde River remains fish-poor, said Tim Walters, biologist with the La Grande ODFW office. The usual high summer temperatures in the valley are even higher this year, and the adults arent doing well.

The Grande Ronde River has had a lot of habitat problems over the last 100 years, Walters said.

Adult salmon returning to the upper Grande Ronde must get through the valley by early July because of rapidly increasing water temperatures.

Walters said that past splash dams, including a 15-foot-high dam at Perry, gold mining, ditching and other human activities have contributed to the poor habitat. Much of the stream where gold mining occurred has not been restored, he said.

Declines in fish runs happen fast, Walters said. Building up takes generations.

Scott Patterson, a hatchery manager with ODFW, sees a ray of hope in a captive brood program if habitat conditions improve. Under the program, salmon eggs are taken from wild fish and raised for one generation in the hatchery. The second generation of eggs is planted in wild streams where the young salmon grow before following the migration route to the ocean and back.

Patterson said the program began in 1995, when we predicted the stock would go away. He said he expects to see an increase in the fish population of Catherine Creek by the third or fourth generation.

The fish will spawn. If we have good quality habitat, theres no reason to expect they wont thrive, he said.

Geneticists have questions about the captive brood program, Patterson said, because of concerns about the potential for weakening stock.

Boehne and Walters said that hundreds of factors and conditions throughout the salmons life affect the fishs ability to survive and thrive.

Fish counts in British Columbia, where there are no dams, are down, Boehne said.

We dont know all the issues surrounding survival, he said.

Theres little disagreement that ocean conditions have drastically improved for salmon in the last three or four years, and ocean conditions are a major factor in the fishs ability to survive.

Where the Northeast Oregon return is highest, the Minam and Imnaha rivers, the terrain has been less hospitable to ranching, farming and logging.

The Imnaha Valley has had little agriculture, little irrigation, but the channel has been modified some, Smith said.

This years Imnaha River salmon season was short-lived, after biologists learned that fishermen were catching as many as two wild salmon for every hatchery fish caught. Even though the fish are released, physical damage often occurs, Smith said.

As for next year on the Imnaha: Therell be a lower run, but it will still be good.

As for the other rivers in Northeast Oregon, nobody wants to predict the future, but the biologists have said they all believe that continuing to improve environmental conditions in the rivers and streams is vital to any success in the salmons return.