USK, Wash. – A few years ago there were no native westslope cutthroat trout in a 5-mile stretch of Cee Cee Auh Creek of northeast Washington.
This summer, however, biologists estimate there are more than 3,000.
The turnabout is due to a major recovery project spanning hundreds of mile of creeks, rivers and lakes in the Pend Oreille River watershed.
When it’s finished, the project will rank among the largest native-fish recovery efforts in the country. The cost will exceed a half-billion dollars.
The work includes complex projects such as a dam removal, to simple work such as dropping trees into creeks. The efforts are to re-create natural habitats resembling those that existed a century ago.
Erosion is being controlled along forest roads. Non-native fish are being removed from waterways. A fish ladder over a dam has been built. And a westslope cutthroat trout hatchery is being built.
“The outcomes are getting really close to where you can see them,” said Jason Olson, Kalispel Natural Resources Department fisheries biologist.
The projects are designed to flow more cold, clear water in the Pend Oreille River and its tributaries. And that’s expected to help boost cutthroat trout numbers high enough to fend off listing the trout as an endangered species. The work also is key to re-establishing bull trout, said Dean Osterman, director of the KNRD.
Both fish species are considered indicators of the environmental health of the watershed since each requires pristine conditions.
The debate on how much to spend bringing back native fish species went on for decades in conference rooms and courtrooms. Now there are workers on the ground.
Making it happen
Beyond strict federal and state environmental protection laws, other historic factors are making fish recovery projects a reality.
Landowners, hydroelectric project operators, government officials, environmentalists and tribal leaders have, mostly, stopped arguing, said Osterman.
At the same time, recent hydroelectric project relicensing agreements are providing the bulk of project funds. Millions have been spent already and when completed in the next decade the total is estimated at more than $500 million.
New forest health improvement projects by the Forest Service, states and now tribes that include stream improvement funds are also adding to the pot.
“We stitched together all these various resources to accomplish bigger or better projects,” said Osterman.
Bill Baker, fisheries biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the project is among the largest of its kind.
The area of focus is roughly the aboriginal territory of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians. Because of legal standing, the tribe has a say on conservation plans in the area that spans three states and two countries, giving a unique ability to coordinate conservation projects.
The area includes several million acres from northern Pend Oreille County in Washington state to the Idaho town of Clark Fork.
The number of workers for the Kalispel department has grown from five to about 50 full time and about 20 seasonal staff. Almost half of them work only on fishery projects.
Extensive aquatic monitoring and restoration projects are included as conditions of the Boundary and Box Canyon hydroelectric project licenses. Avista’s Clark Fork Hydroelectric project native-fish-recovery work has been underway for several years since its license renewed first.
Future projects related to Albeni Dam operated by the Army Corps of Engineers are being studied. The corps has completed a fish passage plan similar to the one at Box Canyon, Osterman said.
And Priest River and Priest Lake projects are being studied and discussed by officials and the community, with a goal of bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout recovery.
Native fish value
There are 16 non-native and 10 native fish species in the project region now. Bass, northern pike, lake trout, eastern brook trout and kokanee are among the non-native.
Biologists report that most streams had native westslope cutthroat trout 100 years ago.
Studies show that bull trout were also abundant in the Pend Oreille River and some tributaries at one time as were the mountain whitefish, Osterman said.
Adult fish migrated downstream from Lake Pend Oreille and then upstream into Priest River and Pend Oreille River tributaries to spawn. After hatching and rearing in tributaries for a few years, young bull trout would migrate out of the tributaries and then upstream in the Pend Oreille River to rear in Lake Pend Oreille.
This migration pattern was eliminated in Washington tributaries with the construction of Albeni Falls Dam in 1952.
Joe Maroney, director of the Kalispel’s fishery and water resources, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviews westslope cutthroat trout populations in this region every five years.
“We hope they see we are doing something and on our way to recovery,” Maroney said.
There is always speculation and misinformation about fishery management programs, said Bill Baker, WDFW fisheries biologist.
There is no intention of eliminating every brook trout, pike or other non-native species that are popular with some anglers. The plans won’t involve every tributary or every run of river or lake.
Bass will stay, for example.
The bass population is increasing but it has shifted to smallmouth from largemouth bass.
Osterman described the public response to eradication of northern pike, a non-native species a few years ago, as “northern pike brush fire.”
He said it was an example of everyone not believing in the science and data. But the studies showed the pike numbers skyrocketing and other species being hurt, so pike eradication began.
Osterman said they are learning as they go.
They have looked at other streams where fish recovery won’t be possible and said there is no need for expensive rehabilitation work there, Osterman said.
Cee Cee Ah Creek was the beginning and a good example of what is underway on many tributaries now.
They used rotenone to kill an introduced population of brook trout. On some streams they instead used electroshock so they could salvage the native fish.
Biologists also learned that simply cleaning up the water and putting downed trees into the water for habitat didn’t go far enough if aggressive non-native fish species were in the stream, too.
In northern Pend Oreille County, the Mill Pond Dam removal and restoration of its largest tributary, Sullivan Creek, is the most notable of the recovery projects in this region.
Along with the dam removal, the PUD built and is successfully operating a pipe system that moves cold water from the depths of Sullivan Lake to Outlet Creek, which feeds into Sullivan Creek above Mill Pond.
One of the most visible of the projects underway throughout the region is placement of trees and wood structures in creeks to create natural fish habitat.
Engineers built logjams in seven reaches of streams. Next summer they will use a helicopter to place trees in selected locations with limited access. The final phase that involves tipping trees into Sullivan Creek is scheduled to be completed by 2020.
“Make it as good as can be,” said Steve Winter, senior hydrologist for Natural Systems Design, the contractor hired by Seattle City Light to do the restoration work on Sullivan Creek.
Logging and other activities have changed the creek, Winter said. A common logging practice had been to clean the stream out to move logs down it.
Winter described how the practice removed hiding places for fish and sped up stream flow.
“For fish that was a big deal.”
Other projects include Seattle City Light building an unusual fish hatchery on Skookum Creek near Usk.
The hatchery will allow fishery managers to breed and grow genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout from individual streams. Biologists say this is important for the survival of the species.
And at Box Canyon Dam last summer, a fish ladder was built to aid the recovery of native species. Testing will begin this year.
The upstream trap-and-haul type fishway consists of two independently operated entrances, a 27-step fish ladder, a pre-sort holding pool, and then a sorting facility.
Target fish will be identified, measured and tagged before being delivered upstream. Non-target fish will be released either immediately above or below the dam depending on whether they are native to the Pend Oreille River.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.