LEWISTON – Picture a fading fluorescent light tube, sputtering off and on and humming a warning that it may soon blink out and go dark.
Tucannon River spring salmon are displaying their own signs of impending darkness. For the past five years, fewer than 50 wild spring chinook have returned to spawn in the river that tumbles out of the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness area in Washington’s Blue Mountains and twists its way north through ponderosa pine and cottonwood trees to join the Snake River near Starbuck.
“For every adult spawner you have out in the river, you get, on average, 0.7 back. In the long term, that isn’t self-sustaining,” said Joe Bumgarner, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Dayton.
There is short-term trouble. The 2021 spring chinook run has exceeded modest preseason forecasts, but there are signs the gains are being made by hatchery fish, while wild chinook protected by the Endangered Species Act continue to struggle. As of last week, just 38 wild and 11 hatchery chinook had returned to the Tucannon River. Fisheries managers forecast 100 to 150 fish eventually will make it back this spring, with only a fraction of those being wild spawners.
At such low numbers, the run is in dangerous territory, and biologists and fisheries managers from the Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are contemplating emergency actions to keep Tucannon River chinook from blinking out altogether.
“It’s bad, so much so we are working with Washington to try to figure out a way to take some of the remaining hatchery production we have downriver below Bonneville (Dam) to release them there so we can try to hang on to something,” said Becky Johnson, production director of the Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management. “We are down to levels we saw in the 1990s when fish got listed and we started a captive brood program, and unfortunately now we are faced with an ocean that is not in good shape and the forecast is not promising.”
The fish face multiple perils – the dams and reservoirs on the Snake and Columbia rivers, poor ocean conditions and a changing climate are chief among them. The financial picture is bleak as well.
Funding fish hatcheries
The Bonneville Power Administration, the agency that markets power produced at federal dams, funds the lion’s share of the salmon recovery work in the Columbia River Basin. Federal law mandates it, and other agencies give equal weight to power production and the needs of fish and wildlife harmed by the dams.
But the agency has faced difficult market conditions for the past decade and is seeking to hold its $247 million fish and wildlife mitigation budget at or below the rate of inflation through 2028 when many of its long-term contracts with utilities must be renegotiated.
Fisheries officials at the Nez Perce Tribe and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have made initial overtures to BPA officials about their desire for emergency actions and need for funding.
“We let them know the populations are in trouble and we need to do something for them and it was going to be something above the measures we are doing now,” said David Johnson, director of the Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management. “The response we got back from Bonneville was they are holding costs level funded through 2028.”
The cool tone of the response has frustrated the fisheries managers. Chris Donley, fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Spokane, said he doesn’t often describe things as being dire, but the description fits on the Tucannon.
“Tucannon River spring chinook are doing poorly because of the hydrosystem, but we are being told by Bonneville Power there is no money to do anything new,” Donley said. “That is a real challenge when those that are doing the damage aren’t stepping up to help pay for the solution.”
Doug Johnson, a BPA spokesman, said a funding decision won’t be made until the agency receives detailed proposals from the agencies.
“It’s kind of premature to say we have denied a funding request,” he said. “We would consider an official request.”
Things are tough all over
The Tucannon River isn’t alone in its troubles. In the Snake River Basin, 42% of the wild spring chinook populations are flashing extinction warning signs. According to the Nez Perce Tribe, places like Loon Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River near Stanley and the upper Grande Ronde River in Oregon, are all on a four-year trend of returning 50 or fewer spawners.
But the Tucannon is wholly within Washington, and that is unique, both geographically and politically.
“There are only two populations of spring chinook in the Snake River part of Washington, and that is Asotin Creek and the Tucannon,” David Johnson said. “And Asotin Creek is extirpated. The only existing population is the Tucannon, and that could go away as well.”
That is relevant from the tribe’s perspective, because politicians in the state don’t appear to share its sense of urgency. The Nez Perce and other tribes in the Northwest have put their muscle behind Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson’s $33 billion concept that would breach the four lower Snake River dams and make investments in affected communities and industries. Simpson wants the idea to be funded under what could be infrastructure legislation worth $1 trillion or more. But Washington’s most powerful politicians, Gov. Jay Inslee and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, oppose the idea.
Instead they want to start a collaborative- and consensus-based process in which dam breaching is one of the options “on the table” but not necessarily its centerpiece.
Tough go for juveniles
The Tucannon is unique in other ways. Unlike most of the wild chinook runs that return to the Salmon River, it has an established hatchery program that shares the same genetic stock as the native fish. That gives managers potential tools to rescue the run.
The Tucannon sits above six dams instead of eight, meaning juvenile fish should have an easier time reaching the ocean. That isn’t the case, however. About 40% die before reaching Lower Monumental Dam, just 60 miles or so downriver. But it is also the only spring chinook spawning river in the Snake River Basin that empties directly into a slackwater reservoir. Becky Johnson said that might be the reason for their poor survival. A short time after juvenile Tucannon River chinook begin their migration to the ocean, they enter a reservoir teeming with predators.
“The survival of those juveniles that get released from the Tucannon is less than fish that get released in the upper Salmon River and (the Salmon River fish) have like 400 miles to go before they hit Lower Granite Dam,” she said.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife operates a trap just upstream from the Tucannon Fish Hatchery. Chinook seeking spawning grounds in the upper river must pass through the trap. Since 2019, every adult chinook, hatchery and wild, that fisheries can get their hands on are taken into a hatchery for spawning. Doing so isn’t ideal, but it dramatically reduces prespawn mortality and increases the number of eggs that successfully hatch and grow into smolts.
On a recent day, hatchery workers collected about half a dozen fish from the trap, wild and hatchery, and took them to the nearby Lyons Ferry Hatchery on the Snake River. They will be held there until they are spawned in August or September.
“The last few years every single fish collected has gone into the hatchery program,” Becky Johnson said. “The hatchery program is providing essentially an extinction buffer.”
But some fish are allowed to spawn in the river. An estimated 30% of Tucannon River wild chinook stop short of the trap.
More can be done
The tribes and state want to do more with the hatchery program. They are considering two main strategies. The first would be to hold some of the fish in a hatchery for their entire life cycles. That was done in the late 1990s when the fish were in similarly poor shape.
“What you are doing is short-circuiting the ocean cycle,” said Gary James, fish program manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. “They don’t get quite as big, but they mature and you spawn them and the genetics are the same. You get more survival and more eggs to perpetuate the run.”
They also are exploring the possibility of raising and releasing some of the juvenile fish from a hatchery in the lower Columbia River.
Those fish would escape the perils of passing the dams and reservoirs and presumably return at higher rates.
“We are just trying to hang onto what we have. In Washington, it’s the only population in the lower Snake River,” Bumgarner said.
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