Oregon truck crash hurls 77,000 ‘threatened’ salmon into the wrong creek

Wildlife officials hoping to replenish depleted salmon populations hurled tens of thousands of the young fish into a northeastern Oregon creek last week. The issue? It was the wrong waterway.

The accident happened Friday morning when a truck loaded with approximately 102,000 spring Chinook smolts rolled onto its roof and crashed as it failed to round a sharp bend, Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a statement. The truck slid down the rocky embankment, emptying the tanker of the majority of its cargo into Lookingglass Creek, a tributary of the Grande Ronde River.

Wildlife officials had intended to release the salmon into Oregon’s Imnaha River instead, more than 50 miles away.

“About 77,000 smolts made it into the creek when the tanker overturned,” the department said.

Some 25,529 other young salmon were less lucky. They died, and their carcasses were collected from the tanker and the rocky streambank after the crash, the statement said.

The state wildlife department employee who was driving the 53-foot truck was safe and received only minor injuries, the statement added.

The Snake River Chinook salmon is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.


Officials from the Nez Percé Tribe assisted the cleanup operation by helping to collect, count and analyze information from tags on the dead fish, which the department said would help with assessments on the impact of the accident on future salmon populations. Since 1855, the Nez Percé Tribe has held treaty fishing rights in the area.

The loss represents around one-fifth of the total number of salmon wildlife officials had intended to release into Oregon’s Imnaha river over the course of the year, as part of the Lower Snake River Compensation plan to replenish depleted stocks and boost numbers for fishing.

The fish were reared in Oregon’s nearby Lookingglass Hatchery, which was established in 1982 to compensate for losses in the salmon population as a result of the construction of four federal dams on the lower Snake River. The facility incubates eggs and rears juvenile salmon until they are ready to be transferred to a satellite facility that acclimates them in preparation for release into the Imnaha river system.

Chinook salmon live in both fresh and saltwater - making them anadromous. After spending the first few months to years of their life in freshwater streams and rivers, they develop into “smolts” - at which stage they instinctively know to travel long distances downstream to the Pacific Ocean to feed and grow. The salmon eventually return to their original freshwater habitat, where they use up their remaining energy reserves to dig nests and spawn before dying.

Scientists believe salmon navigate by using the earth’s magnetic field as a form of compass, which they use to retrace their route to the river they came from. After finding the right river, they use smell to guide their way back to their home stream, according to the United States Geological Survey.

As a result of last week’s truck crash, Oregon wildlife officials said they expect to see between 500 to 900 fewer adult fish returning in 2026 and 2027.

“The 77,000 fish that made it into Lookingglass Creek will likely return there and produce approximately 350-700 additional adults,” the statement said.

Chinook are the largest species of salmon in North America, giving them the name King Salmon. The fish can grow up to 58 inches in length and weigh as much as 126 pounds.