The good ol’ days are back for cutthroat trout in a 5 1/2-mile stretch of a Pend Oreille River tributary.
A handful of genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout have been released into Cee Cee Ah Creek northeast of Usk in a multistate effort to keep the native fish off the Endangered Species list.
“It’s the first of its kind project in Washington,” said Deane Osterman, Kalispel Tribe natural resources director
“I hope it’s the first of many to come in the future,” said Chris Donley, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist.
The project has been 15 years in the making, starting with proposals, studies and permit gathering.
The past three years were devoted to treating the stream with rotenone to kill an introduced population of non-native brook trout.
“Everyone from ranchers to environmentalists agree the best course is to keep cutthroats off the endangered list and avoid the restrictions that go along with it,” Maroney said. “The tribe is proud to be part of the effort.”
Similar projects are underway in lakes or streams of Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, he said.
“We’ve learned a lot about what has limited westslope cutthroats in northeastern Washington through habitat limitations, the relationship with hydropower, forestry practices and limits on movements,” Osterman said.
But habitat restoration wasn’t doing the job to boost cutthroats when they had to compete with brook trout, he said. With the exception of a few lakes without outlets, brook trout no longer are being stocked, but they’ve taken hold like weeds where they were previously introduced.
“Brook trout were stocked by the hundreds of thousands all over the region as recently as 1994,” Maroney said.
“They reproduce rapidly and out-compete westslope cutthroats. They tend to overpopulate and stunt and they pose a serious threat to the genetic integrity of bull trout.”
The tribe secured funding for the project through its long relationship with the Bonneville Power Administration’s programs to mitigate wildlife losses caused by hydropower development.
In upcoming years, dam operators throughout the region will be spending roughly $500 million on stream and wetland restoration and fisheries improvements in the Pend Oreille watershed to satisfy dam relicensing agreements, Maroney said.
The Kalispel Tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Department has grown to keep pace, from a handful 20 years ago to 40 full-time staff, Osterman said.
While the reservation is only 4,654 acres, the tribe has legal interest in 2.3 million acres of aboriginal or ceded lands that go east to include Priest and Pend Oreille lakes.
But Cee Cee Ah Creek – usually spelled and pronounced “CCA” – is close to home, just a few miles northeast of the tribe’s headquarters near Usk.
The cutthroat restoration project is part of a long-term effort stemming from the relicensing of Box Canyon Dam in 2005.
The creek was a perfect candidate for reestablishing cutthroats because of the 80-foot waterfall about 2 miles upstream from its mouth. The barrier blocks nonnative species that might come up from the Pend Oreille River.
The first meetings with the public to explain the project generated considerable interest, as locals were concerned about the effects of rotenone on their water supply, Maroney said.
State Fish and Wildlife officials offered their expertise from years of working with the organic substance that inhibits the ability of a fish’s gills to process oxygen from the water, he said.
“Once people understood the project, the public participation dropped off to almost nothing,” Maroney said. “People were comfortable with it.”
The watershed is among the most highly impacted in the Columbia River Basin, considering the hydropower and history of bad land-use practices and forestry, Maroney said. But many of the streams are getting better with time.
Westslope cutthroat trout are an indicator species for clean water – they can’t survive long in anything less.
DNA testing has identified several streams in the region with genetically pure strains of westslope cutthroats. Precious specimens from those streams are being trapped and translocated to begin repopulating CCA Creek.
“We’d watched cutthroats go extinct in some streams since we started looking at this project in the early ’90s,” Maroney said. “That’s humbling.”
“There aren’t many streams like CCA that have the barrier and other needed conditions for cutthroats,” said Maroney as he drove up the CCA Creek forest road with Todd Andersen, another tribal biologist. “No other projects like this are planned around here soon.”
Andersen had trapped six cutthroats from a pure-strain source stream in the region and brought them to CCA Creek the previous evening.
“These pure-strain fish are like gold,” Maroney said.
“We’ve invested 15 years working on westslope cutthroat. It’s an uphill course, but now we can demonstrate that we have reclaimed 5 1/2 miles of pure westslope cutthroat stream. That’s a gain.”
The chatter in the pickup subsided as the biologists approached the cutthroat release site and noticed that a couple of families had set up camp sometime after 4 p.m. the previous afternoon when the precious pure-strain cutthroats were brought over from another watershed.
Andersen went to the pen in the stream, where the fish had been kept overnight to acclimate to CCA Creek.
He reached in and captured one of the 7-inch long trout. He clipped an adipose fin to mark it and stored the sample for DNA testing. Then he released the cutthroat into CCA Creek with hopes it will be the ancestor of a thriving fishery to come.
But that cutthroat in the first of many releases would be more lonesome than the biologists had planned.
Andersen told Maroney that only three of the six fish placed in the pen were still there.
About that time, two young boys with a black Lab and a fishing net came down from where they had been playing in the stream to see what was up.