One of great casualties of the U.S. conquest of the American Indian was the dominant aboriginal ethic of managing the West in ways that respected "the Seventh Generation."

If a generation is a period of 25 years, seventh generation values mean you must use nature in a way that leaves it in good condition for your descendents 175 years in the future. Imagine that! Governing your behavior in a way that serves your great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren!

It was one of key tenets in a civilization that lived close to the land and depended on its lasting bounty for survival. Our own future would be more secure if we thought that way today.

Which makes it all the more tragic to observe current fish hatchery practices of certain tribes along the Columbia River. Several of them, operating hatcheries all taxpayers paid for, have severely strained wild steelhead conservation by releasing unmarked hatchery fish into the wild.

Normally, hatchery fish have clipped adipose fins, which tell anglers the fish are okay to keep. Wild steelhead - listed as a threatened species - are unmarked and must be returned to the river to preserve their dwindling numbers and a gene pool formed by tens of thousands of years of natural selection.

Columbia River tribes, however, have been releasing unmarked hatchery fish as "restoration fish," meant to rebuild stocks depleted from unwise or irresponsible development down through the decades, principally by non-Indians.

Such degradation is an obvious sore point since the tribes have, by treaty, a sovereign opportunity to harvest up to 50 percent of surplus Columbia River steelhead and salmon. Fifty percent of an ever-declining fish run is, to the tribes, a backdoor violation of their treaty rights.

The tribes' strategy of releasing unclipped hatchery fish is a bid to make them indistinguishable from wild ones, the better to prevent their harvest by non-Indian anglers. The tactic delivers more "restoration fish" back to tribal fisheries and to tributaries for natural spawning.

But here's the problem: Tribal hatchery fish stray into tributaries of the Columbia where they interbreed with native steelhead and compete with them for food. This only speeds the genetic "dumbing down" and depletion of threatened wild runs.

So much for the "Seventh Generation."

Some (like George Bush's political appointees) persist in saying there is no difference between hatchery and native fish and so what if they interbreed and are managed jointly. But as I have previously written in this space, a hatchery population is the result of human engineering that is propagated with only a fraction of a wild run's genetic material.

This creates a monoculture - a synthetic population, which has been stripped of a million years of genetic adaptation to flooding, mudslides, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and disease.

According to Bill Bakke of Oregon's Native Fish Society, the Deschutes and John Day rivers are being hammered with massive numbers of stray steelhead from Pahsimeroi, Sawtooth, and Wallowa tribal hatcheries.

But in a promising development, the Native Fish Society has asked the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to help solve the problem by developing a strategy to allow the harvest of unclipped hatchery steelhead.

It turns out that the unclipped tribal hatchery fish have smaller dorsal fins. Crowded hatchery conditions and constant nipping by other captive fish causes their dorsal fin to be recognizably deformed. In light of this, ODFW would allow the harvest of unmarked hatchery steelhead in the Deschutes and John Day rivers and other streams that get these strays by allowing all anglers to kill fish with a dorsal fin that is one inch high or less.

The Tribes are expected to fight this regulation. It's not in their interest to support it because they have become wedded to hatcheries. But, as Bakke of the Native Fish Society points out, the rule would not apply to main-stem Columbia River fisheries to which the tribes have treaty fishing rights and where the harvest of "restoration fish" would potentially intrude on their strategy of getting hatchery fish to increase the abundance of steelhead spawners.

It would only apply to streams where hatchery fish do not belong - where hatchery strays are causing conflicts with the conservation and recovery of ESA-listed native steelhead and where fishing treaty rights do not apply.

Still, the tribes will likely oppose the plan because it makes a distinction between hatchery and wild fish. But their unmarked hatchery fish are further endangering native steelhead, which hold the genetic code to long-run steelhead survival. Long-term survival is what the Seventh Generation Ethic is supposed to be all about.

Former Congressman Les AuCoin is an Ashland writer and retired political science professor. He is a former majority leader of the Oregon House of Representatives. E-mail him at: lesaucoin@excite.com

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