SEATTLE -- With salmon returning to Pacific Northwest rivers in bountiful numbers not seen since the 1960s, the Bush administration has moved aggressively this election season to roll back policies designed to help the fish survive passage through the region's huge hydroelectric dams.
In a series of announcements this year, federal fish agencies, which have spent billions of dollars to protect salmon from dams under the Endangered Species Act, essentially sided with power producers over environmentalists on what steps need to be taken to protect the fish.
Most recently, the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees protection of salmon, released a plan Sept. 9 that would end years of debate about whether to breach four dams on the lower Snake River.
Fish biologists for decades have singled out those dams for causing the near extinction of several salmon species in the river. But the new federal policy states flatly that dams will be viewed as ''part of the environmental baseline" that the fish, with human help, must adjust to.
The agency says its latest plan was written after extensive talks with the region's dam operators, which include the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and many private utilities. Dam managers have protested for years that the nation's largest hydroelectric system was, for the sake of salmon, not being run in a way that maximized power production.
Bob Lohn, the regional chief of salmon recovery for the federal government, said new policies are ''the most effective ways" to balance the legal requirement to protect endangered salmon with ''a very legitimate social choice" to use the Pacific Northwest's rivers for economic benefit.
With surging numbers of returning salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers, the Bush administration says its policies are working to help fish. But most fisheries biologists attribute the strong numbers to an improvement in ocean conditions, a cyclical phenomenon unrelated to operation of the rivers.
Since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the federal government has spent more money trying to save salmon in the Pacific Northwest than it has spent on any other species.
Over the next decade, Lohn added, dam operators and the federal government have jointly agreed to spend $6 billion to install new dam technologies to boost fish survival.
Lohn said the federal government has an obligation to salmon, to people whose livelihoods depend upon them, and to local residents who want inexpensive power. ''We need to focus on much more than dams," he said.
To that end, the administration also announced in April that it would count fish bred in hatcheries when determining whether genetically similar wild stream-bred salmon are at risk of extinction. Critics of this policy worry that the federal government eventually will use hatchery fish to justify removing wild fish from endangered status.
A third new federal policy would have allowed dam operators to send all river water through hydroelectric turbines in August, instead of spilling some of it over the dams to help juvenile salmon safely reach the ocean.
After a challenge by environmental groups, a federal court struck down the policy.
In Washington state and Oregon, environmentalists, commercial salmon fishing groups, Native American tribes, and many fish biologists see these policy changes as evidence that the Bush administration is catering to business and agriculture interests that depend on inexpensive hydroelectric power and heavily subsidized irrigation.
''Each one of these policies, if looked at in isolation, is bad for salmon," said John Kober, wildlife program manager for the National Wildlife Federation, the lead plaintiff in an ongoing challenge to federal operation of dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. ''Rolled together, they're a major setback for the recovery of these fisheries."
Salmon are still the preeminent symbol of environmental health in the Pacific Northwest.
On Labor Day, 30-pound, olive-brown Chinook salmon leaped from the water near the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle, heading upstream to spawn beyond the city's eastern suburbs. In an underground passageway near the locks, 75 people jostled to glimpse powerful fish gliding through a fish ladder.
Pressed close to windows with one-way glass that prevents salmon from seeing people, children were agog. ''Look how big this one is, Mama!" a girl said. ''Whoa! They are gigantic," a boy added.
''We like to look at them. They're beautiful," said Safina Peri, 43, of Bothell, Wash., who brings her family here to see spawning fish a few times a year.
For centuries, the Columbia River was the most productive salmon river in the world, a resource around which Indians built their lives and culture. More than 16 million salmon a year returned up the Columbia in the early 1800s. The abundance of fish astonished Lewis and Clark, who, after weeks of travel on the river, protested that they would rather eat dog than another salmon.
That bounty ended in the mid-20th century, after the federal government completed massive concrete dams, like Grand Coulee, to create jobs and cheap power. Dams brutally altered the ecosystem, primarily because juvenile fish heading downstream were killed in turbines or died in warm, slow-moving water between dams.
In the ensuing decades, as several salmon species were pushed to the brink of extinction, the federal government spent huge sums to install better fish ladders for adult salmon to get upstream and to load juvenile salmon onto barges and trucks to bypass dams on the downstream journey.
While coastal dwellers in Oregon and Washington tout the glories of wild salmon, many inland residents have little interest in the fish. The divergent views about salmon reflect the region's political split, with liberals crowding the rainy coastlines and conservatives filling the arid eastern plains.
Both states voted for Al Gore in 2000 and lean Democratic, but are considered potential swing states in 2004. In 2000, George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, pledged not to breach dams on the Snake River, and he reiterated his position as president in August 2003.
''We can have good, clean hydroelectric power and salmon restoration going on at the same time," Bush said during a visit to Ice Harbor Lock and Dam on the Snake River, a dam that some suggest should be removed.
Critics say his policies are weighted toward electricity generation. The federal Bonneville Power Administration, which sells power from federal dams to California during the summer air-conditioning season, had protested for years that it was losing revenue by spilling water to help juvenile fish. The government's plan to stop August spills would have added as much as $100 million to dam revenues, Lohn said.
Ordinarily, the policies would rile green-friendly voters in the Pacific Northwest. But this year, as in the rest of the country, the economy, terrorism, and the war in Iraq are dominating voters' attention, said Tim Hibbits, an independent pollster in Portland, Ore. His firm recently conducted a poll of 500 likely Oregon voters and no one mentioned environmental issues in connection with the presidential campaign.
''It's not that people say, 'I don't give a damn about the fish,' " Hibbits said. ''Basically, there's only so much that folks can deal with at any one time."
One group that remains focused on federal operation of the river system is commercial fishermen, who say the government is overlooking their economic interests.
''We don't have to worry about terrorists destroying the fishing industry -- the administration is doing it for them," said Glen Spain, the Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, a nonprofit trade group, adding that many members are conservative Republicans.
Biological trends also have eased the political impact of Bush's regulations: Salmon populations have roared back in the past three years, after precipitous declines from the mid-1980s through the 1990s.
''It's going to be difficult to justify taking out the dams with large numbers of fish coming back," said James J. Anderson, associate professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington. ''When the ocean turns bad at some time in the future, the pressure to remove the dams will be greater."