Dammed to Extinction

Michael Peterson

Despite their obvious intelligence, tight-nit family groups and their sleek playful displays grace, the resident killer whales of Puget Sound are in trouble. In the 1960’s there were around 140 of them by 2007 there were 86 and in late 2014 there were just 77. Since the whales, also known as orcas, were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2005 37 orcas have died while only 21 have been born and survived their first few years of life.

These orcas can talk. Their well developed language evolved to help them hunt what were once vast schools of the largest and fattest species of salmon, Chinook; in excess of 100 million of them annually in the western Pacific, their high mountain birth streams as far inland as the Rocky Mountains a thousand miles from the ocean.

But these fish are endangered too. Although logging, farming, urban development and pollution have taken their toll, the century-long project of damming nearly every western river has reduced available salmon habitat by eighty percent. Some say extinction of northwest icons salmon and orcas is inevitable. The sheer momentum of population growth and the insistence on the perks of an industrial economy will send them the way of the bison and the dodo bird.

Advocates in a rapidly growing movement in the Pacific Northwest see a solution: to feed the whales, free a river. More than a thousand dams have been torn down in the United States since 2000 and outcomes in virtually every instance, ecological and economic, have exceeded expectations. Armed with these success stories, orca and salmon advocates from Seattle to Sun Valley are pursuing the holy grail of dam removal projects: the demolition of four big dams on the Snake River in Eastern Washington. These massive structures block access to the largest wilderness region in the lower 48. The arteries and veins of this high wild country are rivers and streams that, until dams were built, bore millions of salmon.

Dammed to Extinction depicts the passion of those who seek the return of this vast wild river system. The film also portrays the dire predicament of what was until recently one of the richest marine ecosystems on earth, one that stretched from the spine of the continent to the grey plenitude of the northern Pacific and asks if solutions to our seemingly intractable environmental problems are much closer than we think.

Back To Top