August 12, 2008
Dear Friend of Idaho State University:
In central Idaho, hopeful Idahoans are witnessing a natural phenomenon that once could be taken for granted, but which is in peril of being lost forever. Research by an Idaho State University professor underscores just how dramatic that change really is.
Hundreds of endangered Snake River sockeye salmon—more than have been seen in decades—are migrating from the Pacific Ocean toward the Sawtooth Valley, compelled by instinct to spawn where they were born.
Historically, thousands would return to their birthplaces in the Sawtooth Valley to spawn a new generation. Biologists say as many as 700 sockeye may complete the arduous 900-mile journey this year.
For comparison, four sockeye made it in 2007; three the year before; none in 1995. One, dubbed "Lonesome Larry," showed up in 1992.
When ISU research professor Dr. Bruce Finney, Ph.D., looks at the lakes of the Sawtooth Valley, he sees things as they were thousands of years ago. Back then, he says, 25,000 to 40,000 sockeye spawned annually in Redfish Lake alone.
How does he know? Dr. Finney examines lakebed sediment cores using a mass spectrometer. The device can measure concentrations of isotopes of such elements as carbon and nitrogen.
Salmon leave a unique nitrogen signature, recorded by nitrogen isotopes that scientists can identify as originating from dead, decomposing salmon. The nitrogen is taken in by algae that end up in lakebed sediments, which can be dated reliably.
The level of salmon-related nitrogen deposits corresponds to the size of salmon runs. With that data, Finney can reconstruct salmon runs of the past.
Snake River sockeye were listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act in 1991. To an important degree, their future—and perhaps that of the lower Snake River dams that impede their migration—will hinge on understanding the past.
That knowledge will emerge from research by scientists like Dr. Finney, whose is collaborating on a major study that extends into British Columbia, Yukon Territory and Alaska.
In other ISU news, perhaps you've already learned of the death July 29 of Janet C. Anderson, namesake of the gender resource center that bears her name. Dr. Anderson made an immeasurable contribution to campus life over her 31-year career here. She retired in 1998 as dean of student affairs.
On Wednesday, August 27, at 3 p.m. friends have asked you to join a "Celebration of Life" in her honor. It will be held in the Joseph C. and Cheryl H. Jensen Grand Concert Hall, in the L. E. and Thelma E. Stephens Performing Arts Center. Please join us.
The kind scientific of work that Dr. Finney is doing, and the work that Dr. Anderson did to enhance life at ISU and in the community, is what a great university should be doing. It helps assure a more healthful and meaningful future for us all.
Arthur C. Vailas, Ph.D.
President, Idaho State University