Category Archives: Editor’s Blog

Winter Conditions Lingering For Eastern Washington Big Game; Worst May Be Ahead

Critters in Eastern Washington are being tested by a cold, snowy and now lingering winter, with southern portions seeing some of the worst conditions in 20 years, but those in the north also likely to see to more winterkill.

With repeated snowstorms, weeks of frigid temperatures, thaws, freezing rain and more bad weather for several months now, the toll’s adding up on deer and elk and there’s still several more weeks of winter to go.

“The most severe since 1996-97,” says Jeff “Bernie” Bernatowicz, a WDFW wildlife biologist based in Yakima. “Deep, persistent snow with two layers of crust.”

A LAYER OF ICE OVER SNOW SHINES ON A HILLSIDE IN THE COLOCKUM WILDLIFE AREA OF CENTRAL WASHINGTON. (WDFW)

Crust makes it very difficult for ungulates to feed on anything besides shrubs or navigate the countryside as their hooves bust through the icy shell, while predators can run along on top of it.

Several elk and at least three bighorn rams have died in Bernatowicz’s district, and he worries a worse die-off may be coming.

In the Blue Mountains, where a heavy, wet snowstorm hit in early February, a desperate herd of elk ate up a stack of hay that had been put up in a shed alongside Cougar Creek Road decades ago.

“The owner of the shed told me the hay was at least 30 years old, probably older,” said Bob Dice, who manages state wildlife areas in this corner of the state.

SKYLINED ELK ON A HILLSIDE ABOVE THE GRANDE RONDE, ON WDFW’S 4-O WILDLIFE AREA. (WDFW)

A YouTube video shot around that same time showed three deer riding an ice flow down the Grande Ronde River near Troy, likely to their doom.

WDFW closed the 4-O and Grouse Flats Units of the Chief Joseph Wildlife Area earlier this month to public entry until April to limit human disturbance of the herds.

Dice says that conditions have since improved, but another round of winter weather loomed this week that weakened animals will have to cope with.

“We are getting reports of observations of mature bulls exhibiting signs of starvation such as hip bones showing and poor body condition. They still have a long road to recovery,” Dice says.

BULL ELK SEARCH FOR FOOD ON THE 4-O. (WDFW)

A gif put together by the National Weather Service’s Spokane office shows the extent and duration of snow cover across Washington since Dec. 1.

Even as it appears more green is beginning to show in Eastern Washington in the gif, in a cruel blow, a “big pulse” of deaths is likely to occur just as the winter range actually begins to green-up as spring arrives.

“My best guess is that during conditions like this year and last,  elk and deer just turn down metabolism and coast. They only have what is above snow, which is woody browse. They hit ‘E’ on the tank,” Bernatowicz says. “At green-up, the forage is mostly water at first. Energy comes from cell walls, which are pretty thin on fast-growing plants. Deer and elk don’t digest plant material; microorganisms do the work. Those microorganisms are specific to the plant matter. This is why if you suddenly give deer alfalfa hay when they’ve been eating woody browse, they die. The hay just sits there as deer don’t have the right microorganisms to break it down at first. Same goes for woody browse to new growth. The new growth will pass through as it’s mostly water, but the combination of little energy in the food and the wrong microorganism the first week or so equals almost no Kcal gained.  The animals go from ‘E’ to dead.”

While the Yakima and Kittitas County feeding sites are seeing high use by elk — as many as 1,650 at Cowiche, 1,086 at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area headquarters station, 961 at Mellotte, according to WDFW’s Feb. 6 weekly Wildlife Program report — Bernatowicz believes the annual winter herd count could end up being sharply lower than at this same time last year, and the lowest it’s been since surveys began in 1999.

ELK GATHER AT WDFW’S WATT CANYON FEEDING SITE. (WDFW)

Calf recruitment appears to be lagging too. An early February tally of 3,000 elk in the northern herd found 25 calves per 100 cows, where the ratio is “rarely” less than 30:100, according to WDFW.

The agency also reports an “unusual” number of spotted and stunted calves in the feeding grounds.

“In theory, it goes back to fall 2015,” Bernatowicz says. “When cows come into estrus is dependent on body fat. 2015 was a hot, dry summer and early fall. A fair number of cows probably didn’t even cycle during the normal season. In most parts of elk range, the bulls segregate after the normal rut and hormone levels drop.  Thus, no breeding in winter. In the Yakima herd we have feed sites and large concentrations of elk. Bulls are with cows constantly, so are still ready to breed. Some cows gain body fat on feed sites, or at green-up and come into estrus. Last winter there was a fair amount of breeding taking place on feed sites. I’m guessing the same took place in some of the other winter concentrations. Thus, small and spotted calves. We have not seen the same this winter.”

There have been reports of wolves and cougars in unusual places, even a purported sighting of a wolverine by a landowner east of Yakima, and ranchers have had issues with elk getting into more recently cut haystacks and challenging cattle for feed.

There’s also been a “surprising amount” of people getting out onto the winter range, sometimes with potentially negative effects to the landscape where UTVs have gone offroad and dug ruts that will channelize runoff. Bernatowicz says that parts of the winter range which aren’t closed to public access such as the feeding sites don’t have any elk because of higher uses, but “then you have 800 in one group hanging out above shooting ranges.”

“Why shooting ranges? Because no one hikes or rides through,” he says.

In the Eastside’s opposite corner, wildlife biologist Dana Base says this winter will likely be marked down as “severe” on a model WDFW uses.

That was driven by weeks of below-zero temperatures in December and January.

“There have been a few other severe winters in the last 20 years that I’ve worked in Northeast Washington, but none quite like this one has been,” Base says.

In the next district to his west, Okanogan, conditions have lingered.

“For a while it looked like this would be a moderately easy winter for deer in the Okanogan, but that started to change in late January,” says Scott Fitkin in the Methow Valley. “And although I’m not getting reports a lot of reports of winter kill, I’m now guessing we’ll have higher than average fawn mortality this winter. Won’t really know until spring surveys are complete sometime in April.”

We’ll be checking back with the bios on the results of their surveys to determine this winter’s effect on Eastern Washington’s critters.

Predator-Prey Study Launched In Washington’s Wolf Country

Wildlife biologists are busy this winter capturing whitetail and mule deer, elk and cougars across parts of the northern tier of Eastern Washington as part of a study to better determine the effect wolf recolonization is having on populations of prey and predator and across a variety of landscapes.

Operations began in January in Stevens and Pend Oreille Counties, and followed up with efforts in western Okanogan County later in the month, the areas where the bulk of Washington’s wolf packs reside.

A BUCK MULE DEER IN THE METHOW VALLEY LOOKS AT TWO OF ITS CAPTORS AFTER BEING RADIO-COLLARED FOR A LARGE PREDATOR-PREY STUDY THAT BEGAN THIS WINTER IN NORTH-CENTRAL AND NORTHEAST WASHINGTON. (WDFW)

Plans call for more than 200 ungulates to be radio-collared during the duration of the five-year study, along with a dozen and a half or so cougars.

The goal is to also have telemetry on at least a pair of wolves in each pack in the study area, which encompasses the range of eight or nine packs.

WDFW IMAGES SHOW CAPTURE AND COLLARING OF ELK IN NORTHEAST WASHINGTON IN MID-JANUARY. (WDFW)

Biologists from WDFW are being assisted by those from the University of Washington, US Forest Service, Kalispel and Colville Tribes and others, according to information gleaned from recent Wildlife Program reports.

In mid-January they reported capturing 17 elk in the Huckleberry and 49 Degrees North Game Management Units, which was “considered a success” by the agency because of how widely distributed wapiti in this part of Washington are.

In late January, biologists were capturing and collaring mule deer on the Methow Wildlife Area.

A WDFW IMAGE FROM A RECENT WEEKLY WILDLIFE PROGRAM REPORT SHOWS NETS STRUNG UP IN THE METHOW WILDLIFE AREA TO CAPTURE DEER FOR COLLARING. (WDFW)

As wolves have recovered elsewhere in the West, they’ve affected the behavior of deer and elk herds, and this study would appear to try and get a grasp on how that interplay is developing in Washington.

It will likely build on research from the University of Washington which has been studying deer and wolves in eastern Okanogan County for several years.

“This study concentrates on multiple-use lands used by people for activities such as logging, livestock ranching and hunting,” WDFW scientist John Pierce said in a press release Wednesday afternoon. “In that way it differs from most other studies on the impact of wolves, which tend to be conducted in national parks and other protected areas.”

The first confirmed pack of wolves in Washington turned up in 2008. Last year there were 19 known packs and 90 known individuals. It’s likely that the 2016 year-end count will tally a minimum of more than 100 wolves, even after the Profanity Peak Pack removals.

Nearly $2 million in funding is being dedicated to this new predator-prey study, with money coming from the state legislature, Pittman-Robertson Act and National Science Foundation.

 

Coho Return To Sultan River Gorge

This spring, for the first time in nine decades, salmon fry will emerge from the scattered patches of spawning gravel in the gorge stretch of what may be the youngest riverbed in Washington.

Last November, redds were found in the Sultan between the diversion dam and Culmback Dam, which holds back Spada Lake.

WITH THE REMOVAL OF A SLUICEWAY AT A DIVERSION DAM (WHITE SPECK, LEFT CENTER), COHO WERE ABLE TO ACCESS THE SULTAN RIVER IN THE STEEP-SIDED GORGE BELOW SPADA LAKE (RIGHT CENTER) FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 90 YEARS. (USGS NATIONAL MAP AERIAL IMAGERY)

That part of the river had been inaccessible to anadromous fish due to a sluiceway at the lower dam that blocked upstream migration, but was taken out last summer and fall to improve fish passage.

“It was kind of a surprise that, that soon after the project completion, coho would penetrate that far into the watershed,” Keith Binkley, a Snohomish County Public Utilities District manager, told The Daily Herald of Everett.

The diversion dam sits at river mile 9.7, roughly at the mouth of the gorge.

Glaciation during the last ice age blocked the Sultan’s ancestral path down what is today’s Pilchuck, and so the river shifted slightly to the south, down a trib of the “paleo-Pilchuck” that it was able to rapidly erode into today’s gorge, linking the Sultan with the Skykomish rather than the Snohomish.

“The Sultan River below Culmback Dam is thus only about 15,000 years old, which makes it relatively young feature by geologic standards,” reads a 2008 report from Stillwater Sciences for SnoCoPUD.

WDFW WILL NEED TO UPDATE THEIR SALMON SCAPE MAP TO SHOW THAT COHO REDDS HAVE BEEN OBSERVED ABOVE THE DIVERSION DAM ON THE SULTAN RIVER, WHERE THE BLACK LINE ENDS. OTHER STOCKS DOCUMENTED USING THE RIVER UP TO THAT POINT INCLUDE SUMMER AND FALL CHINOOK, WINTER AND SUMMER STEELHEAD, BULL TROUT AND ODD-YEAR PINK SALMON. (WDFW)

As a kid, I enjoyed playing in and fishing the lower end of the Sultan, along Trout Farm Road where we had a little farm. During fall we watched as humpies, coho and Chinook came upstream on their spawning runs, and we made occasional gold mining and fishing forays off the end of the road.

Growing older, I wanted to venture much further upstream, into the steep-sided upper canyon, which might as well be the most inaccessible place within 35 air miles of downtown Seattle.

I think this summer we’ll hike the Sultan River Canyon Trail, immediately below Culmback Dam, to see if we can’t spot any coho fry taking advantage of this newly reopened stretch of water, strengthening Puget Sounds best population of silvers.

Betcha steelhead might be interested in it too.

Editor’s note: To fly up the gorge, check out this video taken by Snohomish County PUD from a helicopter. Lots of interesting water

Is There Path Forward On Reduced WDFW Fee Increase Bill?

Fishing and hunting organizations and everyday sportsmen gave Washington lawmakers their thoughts on WDFW’s fee increase bill yesterday afternoon, and it’s unlikely the original package will emerge from the legislature.

But the agency was buoyed by what it heard during the public hearing on HB 1647 before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

“Overall, we’re encouraged by the fact that our stakeholders increasingly appreciate why we need additional revenue to maintain and expand opportunity,” said spokesman Bruce Botka. “We’re also encouraged that several of the key fishing and hunting groups are willing to work with us and the bill sponsor to fine-tune the proposal.”

MEMBERS OF THE HOUSE AGRICULTURE AND NATURAL RESOURCES COMMITTEE LISTEN DURING A PUBLIC HEARING YESTERDAY ON A BILL THAT WOULD INCREASE THE PRICE OF FISHING AND HUNTING LICENSES. (TVW)

That would include Puget Sound Anglers, and the venerable organization’s Frank Urabeck was one of several members who spoke yesterday.

“I’m optimistic we’ll come up with a substitute bill everyone can support,” he said earlier this afternoon, adding that there also needed to be some visible wins for sport anglers, and specifically pointed to reopening the lower Skokomish River for salmon fishing.

PSA’s Ron Garner said they were working on a substitute bill.

The Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association’s Liz Hamilton spoke to members’ fear of losing customers, and said that without meaningful angling opportunities, the bill was a heavy lift.

Still, while NSIA couldn’t support the current bill, Hamilton said the industry was committed to working with WDFW and lawmakers “to get to the right place.”

Coastal Conservation Association Washington president Dale Scott echoed that, saying that the state’s 17 chapters were ready to find a “workable path forward.”

According to WDFW Director Jim Unsworth, the agency needs $25 million to meet a building structural deficit and to maintain operations, with funding above that to meet needs identified in meetings held around the state.

Some speakers were in support of the fee increases, which would hike the price of hunting licenses by 10 percent across the board, and jump the cost of fishing licenses by varying percentages while also introducing $10 catch cards for salmon, sturgeon, steelhead and halibut.

Nick Chambers of Trout Unlimited said his organization was “strongly supportive,” calling the bill “essential to maintain critical management and increase opportunities.”

He said that without more money, WDFW couldn’t afford to open Skagit River catch-and-release steelhead fisheries and alleviate pressure on Olympic Peninsula streams.

Lee Blankenship, a WDFW retiree, said he supported the bill to stave off inflation and deal with the increasing cost to manage the resource in the face of a growing human population and changing climate.

“There is a cost to maintain what we have,” he said.

On the no side were two representatives from the Hunters Heritage Council, including president Mark Pidgeon.

“The No. 1 reason is we feel we’re at a point we’re going to drive hunters out of the field,” he said.

The umbrella organization’s Tom Eckles said the best way to increase revenues was to get more hunters afield, but that there’s “enormous discontent” about how expensive and complex it is to hunt in the state.

Late in the hearing there was a bit of fireworks between Grays Harbor fisherman Robert Graham and committee Chairman Brian Blake, who represents the harbor, after Graham talked about lawmakers receiving campaign contributions from tribes and commercial interests.

While there is still not a companion in the state Senate, making passage of a bill more onerous, PSA’s Urabeck gave Blake credit for giving the bill a hearing.

Where it goes from here will be interesting.

Gov. Brown Requests Oregon Fish Commission To Change Columbia Policy

An extraordinary letter today from Oregon Governor Kate Brown: She is requesting that the Fish and Wildlife Commission “change its decision regarding the non-tribal Lower Columbia fishery reforms.”

“The current rules, as adopted on January 20th, 2017, are not acceptable,” Brown writes in the note to Commission Chair Michael Finley.

(OREGON GOVERNOR’S OFFICE)

Northwest Sportsman has confirmed the authenticity of the letter.

After a four-year phase-in, Oregon and Washington had been scheduled to fully implement fishery reforms this year on the Columbia, but Oregon began to shy away from planned fall Chinook impact allocations and gillnetting on the big river.

After Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission voted in mid-January on a middle ground proposal, Oregon’s went the opposite way, throwing nearly a century of concurrent management up in the air.

The move infuriated sport anglers who have been paying an $9.75 fee to help move the commercial fleet into off-channel areas, and drew the ire of Oregon lawmakers.

That appears to have gotten the attention of the governor.

“Oregon and Washington have invested a great deal of time and effort in resolving conflicts and providing certainty for fisheries in the Lower Columbia River. It is the policy of my administration to honor those commitments. Honoring those commitments means adhering to the intent of Senate Bill 830, adopting regulations and rules concurrent with the state of Washington, and providing clarity, unity, and enforceability of the rules that govern the Columbia River fishery,” Brown’s letter reads.

THE ASTORIA-MEGLER BRIDGE ARCS OVER THE WEST MOORING BASIN IN ASTORIA DURING 2014’S BUOY 10 FISHERY. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

It says that ODFW staff presented a recommendation that would have done that job, as did the policy that Washington’s commission adopted.

“I ask that you adopt permanent rules to align the rules of the Fish and Wildlife Commission with the policy of my administration. I expect this action to occur by April 3rd, 2017,” Brown writes.

The Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association thanked Gov. Brown for her request of the commisssion.

“Today’s letter is a big step in the right direction towards honoring the spirit of the reforms and the commitments made to the sportfishing industry,” the organization stated in a press release. “NSIA now calls on the Oregon Commissioners to honor the Governor’s letter and vote to concur with the compromise plan the Washington Commision passed in January.”

NSIA also thanked Sportfishing businesses and their employees who contacted the governor’s office with their concerns.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post had an incorrect amount for Oregon’s Columbia River Basin endorsement; it’s $9.75, not $8.75.

WDFW’s Fee Increase Proposal Gets Public Hearing Today

Proposed increases on Washington fishing and hunting licenses come up for a public hearing today in Olympia amongst angst over reduced angling opportunities the past few years, worry about this coming season and how the fee hike could affect fishing equipment sales even more.

“Most acknowledge that the department needs more money and the industry needs a healthy WDFW. But as the industry is acutely aware of, we are seeing dramatic drops in participation and corresponding drops in sales of boats, motors trailers and other durable goods,” reads an alert from the Northwest Sportfishing industry Association to its members to attend the hearing before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee in early afternoon.

That’s been a result of poor salmon returns for much of Washington outside the Columbia River the past two years and difficulties setting seasons for those fish in Puget Sound.

“Our customers didn’t purchase licenses and participation plummeted. Tackle and boat sales dropped to record low levels. The company I work for saw sales drop anywhere from 18 percent to 45 percent in the fishing and marine categories. Business saw lost sales that totaled into the millions,” writes Gabe Miller, the fishing and marine sales director for Sportco and Outdoor Emporium, a major Northwest Sportsman advertiser, in an opinion piece in The Olympian this morning.

SPORTCO AND OUTDOOR EMPORIUM’S GABE MILLER SPEAKS DURING A 2014 HEARING ON STEELHEAD LAWSUITS. (TVW)

NSIA says “uncertainty” over how this year’s North of Falcon salmon-season-setting negotiations will play out, and Oregon’s recent backpedaling on Columbia River fishery reforms “is killing the industry” and is urging its members to speak today about how all of it is affecting their businesses.

The Coastal Conservation Assocation of Washington is also asking anglers to attend, and Puget Sound Anglers put out an alert that says they can’t support the current bill, HB 1647 — which would raise the price to fish for salmon and steelhead in salt- and freshwaters and the Columbia, use a second rod, as well as crab in Puget Sound, from $87.65 to $111.45 — but that they are willing to work on a substitute as long as key concerns are addressed and there’s more certainty about what the benefits for anglers would be.

However, there are some who do support the current bill. Yesterday the Wild Steelhead Coalition worried that without additional revenue WDFW won’t be able to reopen the Skagit River spring catch-and-release steelhead fishery next year.

The bill also includes a 10 percent jump in the cost of hunting licenses.

WDFW argues it needs the money to keep up with inflation since the last increase in 2011 as well as to be able to offer increased sporting opportunities.

Arguments for and against will be heard starting at 1:30 p.m. in Hearing Room B of the John L O’Brien building.  The hearing will be broadcast live on TVW.

If a bill is passed, any new fees would take effect 90 days after the legislative session is adjourned, or July 22 if lawmakers wrap up business on schedule.

Senator Grills WDFW Over Cowlitz Steelhead Smolt Loss

Admitting they didn’t have a very compelling story to tell, Washington fishery managers went before a state Senate committee this afternoon to outline why they can’t account for hundreds of thousands of hatchery summer steelhead and cutthroat trout that were under their care last year.

“What in the world happened with those fish?” Sen. Kirk Pearson, chair of Natural Resources and Parks, wanted to know from a trio of WDFW honchos assembled for a work session on the loss of a high percentage of the planned spring 2016 release into the Cowlitz River.

THREE HIGH-RANKING WDFW STAFFERS SIT BEFORE SEN. KIRK PEARSON AND HIS NATURAL RESOURCES AND PARKS COMMITTEE THIS AFTERNOON IN THIS SCREEN GRAB FROM TVW. (TVW)

Pearson, a Monroe Republican who in 2014 grilled the Wild Fish Conservancy over their lawsuit against WDFW’s Puget Sound winter steelhead program and then pushed for federal fishery overseers to quickly finalize needed hatchery genetic management plans to again release winter-runs in the basin, said that reading about the loss in a newspaper instead of hearing it first from the agency “makes us wonder about how management is with our fisheries.”

“Director,” he asked WDFW’s Jim Unsworth, “is this an isolated incident or standard practice for our hatcheries?”

“Isolated,” Unsworth answered, acknowledging annual losses do occur.

Typically, however, those are from disease, drought or flood — even fish bandits — but this is very concerning as it occurred on Western Washington’s best consumptive steelhead fishery outside of the Lower Columbia and there’s no confirmed cause.

Unsworth tasked Kelly Cunningham, the agency’s Fish Program manager, and Eric Kinne, the hatchery manager, with explaining to Pearson and a couple other senators, including John McCoy, what might have happened.

As he began WDFW’s presentation, Cunningham pointed to several factors, “none of which feel good,” with bird predation and a counting error his strongest suspects.

IMAGES FROM TODAY’S WORK SESSION ON THE COWLITZ STEELHEAD AND CUTTHROAT LOSS. (WDFW)

He explained that WDFW had initially planned to release 625,900 summer steelhead into the Cowlitz in May 2016, but some of those were lost to disease and other issues during incubation.

Around 540,000 survived and were moved from their raceways to a series of 5-acre lakes, but when the steelhead along with cutthroat were subsequently released into the Cowlitz, a counting machine tallied only 200,200.

“What happened to the remaining 340,000 fish? We don’t have a good answer,” Cunningham acknowledged.

IMAGES FROM TODAY’S WORK SESSION ON THE COWLITZ STEELHEAD AND CUTTHROAT LOSS. (WDFW)

He noted that three of the lakes are only partially netted at their ends, and while WDFW spends “down to the last penny” to prevent predation, greater densities of fish in two of the lakes could have made it even more of a buffet.

Cunningham also pointed to challenges of raising smolts in the large ponds, including their sheer size– 450 yards by 50 yards by as much as 11 feet deep — and the difficulties of enumerating how many fish might be swimming in them at any one time, thus giving hatchery operators a head’s up about an ongoing loss to address.

IMAGES FROM TODAY’S WORK SESSION ON THE COWLITZ STEELHEAD AND CUTTHROAT LOSS. (WDFW)

He said that fully netting them would cost $500,000, but there’s been “some reluctance to invest that money.”

WDFW operates the hatchery, which is owned by Tacoma Power. Fish are reared here and at Barrier Dam as mitigation for the utility’s dams on the Cowlitz.

In addition, some birds can swim through netting to access netted sections, thereby competing with the fish for food, according to minutes from a WFDW-Tacoma Power meeting last November.

While Cunningham pointed to bird predation as a “significant contributor,” he also drew attention to the device that tallies the fish as they leave the lakes.

IMAGES FROM TODAY’S WORK SESSION ON THE COWLITZ STEELHEAD AND CUTTHROAT LOSS. (WDFW)

“Multiple fish can go through the counter at the same time, but only one is counted,” he said. “We know that happens.”

Asked if that’s a problem at the state’s other fish-rearing facilities, WDFW’s Kinne said that they don’t really use that type of machine — a 16-tube conductive counter — elsewhere.

IMAGES FROM TODAY’S WORK SESSION ON THE COWLITZ STEELHEAD AND CUTTHROAT LOSS. (WDFW)

Fish are instead netted and weighed, but Cowlitz is different and requires this kind of counter. The facility was built 50 years ago to produce as much as a million pounds of fish annually, but that has been reduced by a third.

Asked by Pearson point blank if WDFW’s counters are accurate or not, Kinne said they were as good as can be, and the one at the Cowlitz Trout Hatchery is regularly checked. That said, it can be fooled by sticks and fouled by debris, staffers indicated.

IMAGES FROM TODAY’S WORK SESSION ON THE COWLITZ STEELHEAD AND CUTTHROAT LOSS. (WDFW)

Cunningham outlined a series of short- and long-term fixes, and also looking towards the future, Pearson stated that the loss was going to hurt the 2018 fishery and asked WDFW if they had any estimates on the economic cost of the loss.

“We don’t,” Cunningham told him.

IMAGES FROM TODAY’S WORK SESSION ON THE COWLITZ STEELHEAD AND CUTTHROAT LOSS. (WDFW)

While there is sure to be an effect, “What’s more important than the release numbers is marine survival,” Cunningham stated.

Ocean conditions could be good enough to produce an average return.

“That’s fingers crossed,” Cunningham acknowledged.

A graph produced by WDFW for today showed that major smolt losses on the Cowlitz in 2003 and 2005 subsequently produced poor fisheries,– but also that a release of 600,000 smolts yielded even worse angling in 2013.

IMAGES FROM TODAY’S WORK SESSION ON THE COWLITZ STEELHEAD AND CUTTHROAT LOSS. (WDFW)

Cunningham also addressed how slowly word emerged about the loss, first officially revealed during a November 2016 meeting with sportfishing advisors and Tacoma Power officials, then last month with the quiet issuing of a fact sheet by the regional office in Vancouver.

We reported on that, while the Centralia Chronicle’s attempts at sleuthing out the story led to an article then a strongly worded editorial board opinion piece last weekend.

He said there had been a “failure” to formally and in a timely manner communicate about the fish loss.

The situation puts WDFW’s license hike request in some peril, and it certainly will remain on the radar of Senator Pearson, through whose committee any fee increase legislation would have to advance.

“Hopefully you’ll come back with an answer,” Pearson told WDFW as today’s discussion ended. “Happy to have you in front of us when you do.”

Sportsmen Help Quash Public Land Sale Bill In Congress

The sponsor of a bill that would have required the disposal of 180,000 acres of federal, public land in Idaho and Oregon as well as millions more acres elsewhere in the West dropped it overnight after outcry from sportsmen and others.

A Facebook message accompanying an image of Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz — dudded up in a camo coat, hat bearing a stylized elk, and carrying a hound — states that he withdrew House Resolution 621 because “groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message.”

A SCREEN SHOT OF REP. JASON CHAFFETZ’S ANNOUNCEMENT LAST NIGHT.

The bill included 70,000 acres in the Beaver State and 110,000 acres in the Gem State. While some parcels are large blocks — – including 44,000 acres in Harney County — many are smaller, and often have impediments to their sale, such as mining claims, lack of legal access, ESA species, etc.

Showing that sportsmen need to be alert to attempts by both sides of the aisle to sell off our lands, the ground in Chaffetz’s bill had originally been identified in 1997 by the Clinton Administration as potential revenue sources to pay for restoration work in the Everglades, according to the Salem Statesman-Journal.

Rocky Barker at the Idaho Statesman called the Beehive State Republican’s “turnaround … remarkable.”

Chaffetz along with Rep. Bob Bishop are part of the movement to dispose of Forest Service, BLM and other public lands in the West, to the consternation of hunters, anglers and others who prize those lands for recreation and critter habitat, but Barker writes:

“Chaffetz now is sounding more like incoming Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. He and his boss, President Donald Trump, have expressed opposition to transferring or selling federal lands on a grand scale.

“As a Montanan, Zinke will know there are times when public land sales and especially land trades make sense. But not with the lack of forethought that went into the Chaffetz bill.”

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, which have been raising alarms over land transfers, offered a wary statement following the Congressman’s move, saying it amounts to winning a single battle in a larger war.

“Representative Chaffetz should never have introduced this ill-conceived bill, but the instant and overwhelming response by sportsmen and -women forced him to listen and ultimately abandon H.R. 621, which would have seized millions of acres of public lands. His fellow lawmakers should take note of the ire and rapid response by hunters and anglers. We aren’t going away,” said Land Tawney, president of the Missoula-based organization. “Unfortunately there are those who will continue to perpetrate bad deals like this one. American hunters and anglers will be there every step of the way. Mr. Chaffetz took the first step. Now he needs to kill H.R. 622, the Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act, which would eliminate hundreds of critical law enforcement jobs with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Our law enforcement officers are on the front lines of conservation and already do more with less. Let’s give them the resources they need to do their jobs.”

NMFS Releases $15 Million In Mitchell Act Funding To NW States, Tribes, USFWS

Federal fishery overseers today told hatchery managers in Oregon, Washington and Idaho that they can now access millions of dollars in funding that had been held back pending a review of future production practices in the Columbia Basin.

With that completed, letters went out from the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Portland office this morning advising ODFW it can withdraw $5.9 million in grants for Mitchell Act facilities, WDFW $5.5 million, USFWS $2.9 million, the Yakama Nation $696,121 and Nez Perce Tribe $127,470.

Disbursement had been held up by last March’s lawsuit by the Wild Fish Conservancy. Last summer NMFS said it wouldn’t release the money until after it finalized a new biop.

That occurred in mid-January, and earlier this week WFC notified NMFS that it was no longer pursuing the preliminary injunction it had filed in U.S. District Court.

RELEASES OF TULE CHINOOK IN OREGON'S BIG CREEK, WHERE GEORGE PERMIAKOV FOUGHT THIS ADULT SALMON A FEW SEASONS AGO, IS UNDER THREAT FROM TODAY'S LAWSUIT. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

RELEASES OF TULE CHINOOK IN OREGON’S BIG CREEK, WHERE GEORGE PERMIAKOV FOUGHT THIS ADULT SALMON A FEW SEASONS AGO, WILL BE REDUCED BY MORE THAN HALF UNDER THE NEW FEDERAL BIOP, RESULTING IN SLIGHTLY LOWER HARVESTS IN THE COLUMBIA AND OFFSHORE FISHERIES, BUT THE NEW PLAN ALSO AUTHORIZES INCREASED SPRING CHINOOK AND COHO PRODUCTION ELSEWHERE. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

The Mitchell Act was created in 1938 by Congress to counteract declining runs in the Columbia. It provides federal funds for hatcheries operated by states, tribes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to produce tens of millions of Chinook, coho, steelhead, sockeye and other species that provide the backbone of today’s sport, commercial and tribal fisheries in the ocean and Columbia Basin.

The new biop allows for increased spring Chinook and coho production at select hatcheries, reduced fall Chinook production in the Lower Columbia and the phasing out of out-of-basin steelhead smolt releases, among other changes due to be in place by 2022, while also strengthening protections for ESA-listed stocks.

In the letters to ODFW Director Curt Melcher and WDFW Director Jim Unsworth, the feds write their review “was greatly enhanced by the cooperation and assistance NMFS received from” staff members at both state agencies, and specifically credits Bruce McIntosh and Chris Kern at ODFW and Jim Scott and Eric Kinne at WDFW.

“NOAA Fisheries’ has worked long and hard to complete the biological opinion and to release the funding for these hatchery programs,” said WDFW’s Scott, a special assistant to Unsworth. “This is another important step forward in once again meeting the Congressional mandate for the Mitchell Act to provide for the conservation of the fishery resources of the  Columbia River.”

NMFS now turns its attention to hatchery genetic management plans elsewhere in the region.

“Next-up are spring Chinook salmon HGMPs in the Methow, 42 on the Oregon Coast, and 35 more in Puget Sound including Snohomish, Green/Duwamish, Puyallup/White, and Nooksack hatchery programs,” says Rob Jones, chief of Anadromous Production and Inland Fisheries on the West Coast.

Anglers Rallying To Threatened Washington Fish Commissioners

As Washington’s two largest sportsman and boat shows fire up for a big weekend, word has emerged that strong recreational angling advocates in Olympia may be on the chopping block.

Rumors have been circulating that the appointments of some Fish and Wildlife Commissioners could be in jeopardy following recent votes, and now anglers are being strongly encouraged to contact Governor Jay Inslee, his staff members JT Austin and Kelly Wicker, and a powerful state senator in an attempt to head that off.

GOVERNOR JAY INSLEE, MIDDLE LEFT, AND HIS POLICY ADVISOR JT AUSTIN, FAR LEFT, ARE BEING ASKED TO LEAVE LARRY CARPENTER AND MIRANDA WECKER ON THE WASHINGTON FISH AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION. (GOVERNOR'S OFFICE, FLICKR)

GOVERNOR JAY INSLEE, MIDDLE LEFT, AND HIS POLICY ADVISOR JT AUSTIN, FAR LEFT, ARE BEING ASKED TO LEAVE LARRY CARPENTER AND MIRANDA WECKER ON THE WASHINGTON FISH AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION. (GOVERNOR’S OFFICE, FLICKR)

The crux is, as Washington continues to move towards recognizing the tremendous economic contributions of the sportfishing industry — fully on display now at the Washington Sportsmen’s Show in Puyallup and the Seattle Boat Show at Seahawks Stadium and on south Lake Union — and the conservation benefits of selective fishing in waters where more and more Endangered Species Act-listed salmon and steelhead are swimming, the far smaller gillnetting fleet and its point people are pressuring Inslee to go back on his 2015 letter to the Fish and Wildlife Commission in which he stated he was “convinced that we can prioritize and expand fishing opportunities for the 800,000 Washingtonians who purchase fishing licenses annually …”

In recent weeks, that commission voted 7-2 to continue moving towards agreed-to salmon fishing reforms on the Lower Columbia River. But Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife oversight council went the opposite way, backtracking on the reforms, breaking promises to hundreds of thousands of anglers and throwing the nearly 100-year-old Columbia River Compact and fishing regulation concurrency into question for the first time. That’s the result of Oregon Governor Kate Brown appointing a commissioner whose sole goal appears to have been to blow up the agreement forged in 2012 and 2013 to head off a ballot initiative that might have led to the end of nontribal commercial gillnetting in Oregon.

And now, concerns are being raised about two and possibly three of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioners who voted in favor of that.

That’s according to a blog post on Tidal Exchange, a sportfishing advocacy site, and generally confirmed by what Northwest Sportsman has been hearing the past few days as well.

Of highest concern are the terms of Vice Chairman Larry Carpenter and longtime former chair Miranda Wecker.

LARRY CARPENTER. (WDFW)

LARRY CARPENTER. (WDFW)

Carpenter’s term on the panel came up at the end of 2016 pending a reappointment, while Wecker’s runs through 2018, though she has not been officially confirmed by the state Senate.

Both are rock-solid fish and sportfishing advocates, natural resource policy experts and thoughtful members of a panel charged with ensuring that the state’s fish and wildlife continue in perpetuity.

wecker-550x410

MIRANDA WECKER DURING A SENATE COMMITTEE HEARING ON HER APPOINTMENT TO THE FISH AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION.

Wecker has also been exceedingly good on hunting issues, especially predator management. In reappointing her to the commission in 2013, Inslee said, “Miranda Wecker has done an excellent job in leading the commission’s work on several challenging fish and wildlife policy issues, and I am very pleased that she is willing to serve another term.”

As tens of thousands of Washington sportsmen head to the shows this weekend, it would be an extraordinary cruel and shortsighted blow to remove two such wise members of the commission.

For more details on the situation and a sign-on form to send to the Governor’s Office, see tidalexchange.com.