Mining provides resources for people but can pose risks to ecosystems that support cultural keystone species. Our synthesis reviews relevant aspects of mining operations, describes the ecology of salmonid-bearing watersheds in northwestern North America, and compiles the impacts of metal and coal extraction on salmonids and their habitat. We conservatively estimate that this region encompasses nearly 4000 past producing mines, with present-day operations ranging from small placer sites to massive open-pit projects that annually mine more than 118 million metric tons of earth. Despite impact assessments that are intended to evaluate risk and inform mitigation, mines continue to harm salmonid-bearing watersheds via pathways such as toxic contaminants, stream channel burial, and flow regime alteration. To better maintain watershed processes that benefit salmonids, we highlight key windows during the mining governance life cycle for science to guide policy by more accurately accounting for stressor complexity, cumulative effects, and future environmental change.