Category Archives: Editor’s Blog

Commissioner Calls For Snake Chinook-like Conservation Hatchery On Stilly

UPDATED AT BOTTOM WITH WDFW PRESS RELEASE ON TODAY’S COMMISSION TELECONFERENCE

Pointing to the successful restoration of Snake River fall Chinook from the edge of extinction, a Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioner called for a new conservation hatchery program on the Stillaguamish.

It would rear more kings as habitat work is done in the Snohomish County watershed where the stock is having trouble rebuilding itself despite fishery cuts over the decades and which has been identified as a major constraint in the proposed Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan.

IN A SCREEN GRAB FROM C-SPAN 3, DONALD McISAAC SPEAKS BEFORE A CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEE IN JANUARY 2014. (C-SPAN)

It’s the brainchild of the newest member of the citizen panel, Hockinson’s Don McIsaac, the retired chairman of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

“Much more needs to be done outside of fishery restrictions,” McIsaac said during a commission teleconference this morning.

His plan would need funding from the state legislature and buy-in from the Stillaguamish Tribe, which already operates a facility on the river.

But commissioners are trying to show the angling public that there are ways to mitigate the feared impacts of the controversial 10-year plan that’s been in the news so much of late.

In a nutshell, McIsaac explained that after construction of the four dams on the lower Snake River, fall Chinook returns dropped to just 78 wild fish in 1990.

But through joint tribal-state-federal efforts — along with habitat and river flow improvements — the run has been rebuilt to as high as 60,000 hatchery and wild kings past Lower Granite Dam in recent years, and sport and tribal anglers have been able to fish for and harvest the salmon.

Basically, eggs were taken from Snake kings and reared at WDFW’s Kalama Falls Hatchery for a couple generations. The progeny of those were then returned to the Snake.

McIsaac termed it “a successful example of a conservation hatchery helping out while habitat is worked on.”

He acknowledged that building a larger conservation hatchery on the Stilly would take time, so he suggested using existing state facilities as bridges.

And he stressed that the Stillaguamish Tribe would need to be amenable to it.

Of note, the extirpation of the basin’s Chinook is a nonstarter for the tribe and Washington.

McIsaac also touched on the 900-pound gorilla in the room, the “severe” predation on Chinook in Puget Sound by increasing numbers of MMPA-protected seals and sea lions that is “not being addressed.”

He said that pinnipeds are picking off tens of millions of the salmon as they leave the rivers as smolts, swim through the estuaries and out of the inland sea before returning after several years as adults.

“So in some ways it’s no wonder we’ve seen no rebound in fish numbers,” McIsaac said.

And he challenged WDFW staff to come up with a “genuine habitat restoration plan” for the Stillaguamish Basin too.

Ultimately, it all gives the agency negotiating tools as work continues on the Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan, etc.

McIsaac also said a better job needs to be done communicating with the angling public on the plan, and asked WDFW staffers to put out a press release following today’s teleconference that would in part put out “true facts” on the plan’s impacts and “dispel rumors and exaggerations.”

He said that allegations that Puget Sound would be closed for salmon fishing for 10 years “are just not true.”

That said, in years of low runs, both state and tribal fisheries could be restricted in places as federal overseers lower acceptable risks on the stocks.

But there have been some indications that the plan will not be used as a blueprint for designing 2018 fisheries, meaning the reduced impact rates may not have to be applied this season. NMFS has numerous problems with what the state and tribes have come up with for many basins and the plan may not be approved until the 2020 season.

WDFW has been hobbled talking about the plan to a degree because of the nature of the closed-door negotiations between the state and tribes in a federal court that left the commission and angling public out. They have made little effort to explain it to us, and so the plan has been picked apart by their own retired experts as well as radio show hosts and others.

“It’s important that we try to improve the communications as we go through this,” McIsaac urged.

At the commission’s meeting in Ridgefield on Friday, Ron Warren, the agency’s Fish Program Manager, acknowledged that public trust with WDFW had been “eroded” and he apologized to anglers in attendance and across the state for that.

Seven of the commission’s nine members were in on today’s conference call, and McIsaac’s proposals drew very strong support from Vice Chair Larry Carpenter of Mount Vernon.

“We have a crisis on our hands here and we have to show leadership on the issue,” he said.

Carpenter, who is a former owner of Master Marine, had lobbied for another teleconference earlier this month in hopes of being able to share “perhaps something positive” with stakeholders before the big upcoming Seattle Boat Show “so it’s not a total disaster.”

Others were in support of McIsaac’s ideas, though caution was expressed about certain facets, including sending a letter to the governor asking for $5 million for the new hatchery, whether $5 million was a realistic figure, the potential for litigation over pinnipeds from “protection organizations,” McIsaac’s “off ramp” for fishery restrictions if runs improve, and the fact that the Stilly isn’t the only Chinook basin with problems — there’s also the Nooksack, among others, so what about them?

But it’s a start.

Ultimately, the commission did not vote on any specific resolution as, according to WDFW Director Jim Unsworth, staff had enough direction to work with.

 

THE FOLLOWING IS A WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE PRESS RELEASE

Commission advises WDFW on chinook plan that would guide Puget Sound salmon fisheries

OLYMPIA – The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission advised state fishery managers to strike a better balance between conservation and harvest opportunities as they work with tribal co-managers to revise a proposed plan for managing chinook harvest in Puget Sound.

During a conference call Tuesday, the commission – a citizen panel appointed by the governor to set policy for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) – instructed state fishery managers to explore a variety of options as they revisit catch rates and other pieces of the updated Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan.

The plan defines conservation goals for state and tribal fisheries that have an impact on wild Puget Sound chinook salmon, which are listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under that law, no fisheries affecting Puget Sound chinook can occur without a conservation plan approved by NOAA Fisheries.

“Ultimately, we would all like to see salmon runs restored in Puget Sound, but severely restricting fisheries isn’t the only path to achieving that goal,” said Brad Smith, chair of the commission. “For that reason, we advised WDFW staff to explore other salmon recovery options, including improvements to habitat and hatchery operations.”

State and treaty tribal co-managers initially submitted the proposed plan to NOAA Fisheries on Dec. 1, 2017. The plan would reduce state and tribal fisheries in Washington, especially in years with expected low salmon returns. For example, increased protections for wild chinook salmon returning to the Stillaguamish and Snohomish rivers would likely restrict numerous fisheries because those fish are caught in many areas of Puget Sound.

Despite the restrictive nature of the plan, NOAA has already informed the state and treaty tribes that the plan is insufficient, noting that several key salmon stocks would not meet new — more restrictive — federal conservation objectives.

“Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard from many people who are concerned this plan could result in the closure of all Puget Sound sport fisheries, but that’s not the case,” Smith said. “Yes, the plan does call for reductions to some fisheries, especially in years of low salmon abundance. But we have an opportunity – given the need to revise the plan – to use various mitigation tools to offset impacts from fisheries when and where appropriate.”

Mitigation tools the commission asked WDFW to explore include:

  • Increasing habitat restoration efforts.
  • Improving hatchery operations, including increasing production to support salmon recovery efforts.
  • Reducing populations of predators, such as seals and sea lions.

NOAA has indicated its review process will take 18 months once the federal agency deems the plan is sufficient for a full review, making it likely the 10-year plan won’t be in place until the 2020-2021 fishing season. There will be opportunities for public comment during that review process.

State fishery managers believe that a long-term management plan will reduce uncertainty in the annual salmon season-setting process, providing more stability for recreational and commercial fisheries.

In the meantime, state and tribal co-managers are working on conservation objectives to guide this year’s salmon season-setting process. During its call Tuesday, the commission asked state fishery managers to continue to discuss the possibility of using the 2017 conservation objectives for this year’s upcoming planning efforts.

The commission directed state fishery managers to provide regular updates as the negotiations of this year’s objectives and the 10-year plan continue. State fishery managers will also provide updates throughout the process to citizen advisors during open public meetings.

The plan, along with feedback from NOAA, is available on WDFW’s website athttps://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/fisheries/chinook/.

If OKed, Skagit-Sauk Steelhead Fishery May Not Open Till Spring

Between the hopes, the vow, the disappointment, the so-so run forecast, the budget and the feds, will anybody be happy with a wild steelhead fishery on the Skagit-Sauk if we get one this year?

However long it might last.

Whatever shape it might take.

Whenever it might get approved.

AN ANGLER CASTS A LINE ON THE SKAGIT RIVER AT THE MOUTH OF THE SAUK EARLIER THIS MONTH. (CHASE GUNNELL)

THE VOW

In early December, the National Marine Fisheries Service put WDFW and local tribes’ proposed fisheries on the North Cascades river system out for final comment.

Two days later, during open public input at WDFW’s December 9 Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting in Olympia, Leland Miyawaki of Occupy Skagit — which has long been a driving force behind reinstating the catch-and-release season — spoke once again in support of it.

WDFW DIRECTOR JIM UNSWORTH DURING THE DEC. 9, 2017 FISH AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION, TELEVISED ON TVW, WHERE THIS SCREEN GRAB CAME FROM. (TVW)

As he finished his testimony, Commissioner Jay Holzmiller from Anatone, in the opposite corner of the state from the Skagit, asked WDFW Director Jim Unsworth if he could get Miyawaki some answers.

Unsworth went one better.

“If we get the approval, it’s going to happen,” he said right then.

THE DISAPPOINTMENT AND THE BUDGET

The “if” really isn’t a question, but Unsworth’s vow confidently glossed over a crucial unresolved issue: finding the funding to monitor and enforce the rules during a federally permitted fishery over what is an ESA-listed stock, albeit the strongest one in Puget Sound.

When WDFW rolled out its Wild Futures fee increase proposal last year, the cost to hold a Feb. 1 to April 30 season on the Skagit between Concrete and Rockport and the Sauk from its mouth to Darrington was modeled at $110,000.

Wild Futures went nowhere in the state Legislature.

The $110,000 evaporated.

That meant the money has to come from elsewhere in WDFW’s coffers.

Sure, their wolf people tamer just got a new $425,000 contract extension, but the reality is this money could never come from that pot. Instead, local staffers would need to be retasked from their important stream surveys, work at hatcheries and crunching data to do creel sampling.

Anglers like you and I might accept that as a good tradeoff, though ultimately it could cost us down the road in other ways.

Anyway, with Unsworth all but guaranteeing we’ll fish, when WDFW held the first of two recent public meetings with steelheaders to help shape a fishery, managers said they had located enough funding — roughly $30,000 — for a two-week season.

Er, two weeks?

Having not been able to fish the Sauk and Skagit in prime time — February, March and April — since 2009, it would be fair to say that 14 days is not exactly what many anglers such as myself had in mind.

The federal plan allows fishing from as early as Feb. 1 to as late as April 15 or 30. (It’s unclear which is meant — both are listed as end dates in different areas of the document.)

So … JUST TWO WEEKS?!?!

That’s like … a freshwater halibut season, man!

A mad rush to the river, overcrowded boat ramps, 20 drifters or sleds side-drifting every run and lumberyard, fly guys and spoon chuckers and bobber lobbers lining the banks, Howard Miller packed to the gills.

It didn’t go over so well with some.

Subsequent to that first meeting was a second, and afterwards Occupy Skagit reported on Facebook “there was talk from the presenters at Sedro Woolley that the entire season may well be funded.”

Setting aside what “the entire season” might mean for just a moment, it wasn’t clear where those additional dollars were coming from, though it’s possible Unsworth — who is an eager river angler himself — took some words from Commissioner Kim Thorburn to heart.

“Director, you can do double duty, doing the monitoring while you’re fishing,” the Spokane birder said at the Dec. 9 meeting.

THE FEDERAL REALITY

Regardless of how much spare change Unsworth et al have found underneath the agency’s assorted cushions, how long we’re able to fish the Sauk and Skagit in 2018 boils down to when Barry Thom literally signs off on it.

Thom would be NMFS’s West Coast administrator in Portland. His minions put the fishery proposal out for a 30-day comment period starting Dec. 7 and ending Jan. 8.

During that time, NMFS received somewhere around 120 missives, according to spokesman Michael Milstein.

So now of course those have to be gone through for their merits.

I imagine many are legit — clearing up that confusing double end date deal, say — while others may be more about delaying or even scuttling a 2018 season altogether.

I want to be clear that this doesn’t work for me What. So. Ever, but an argument can be made to just take a deep breath and get everything in order for a full February-April fishery in 2019.

Spread out the pressure, maybe there will be more fish than the 4,000 to 6,000 expected this year, down from recent years’ average spawner escapement of 8,800.

But with 2017’s North Sound salmon fisheries (LOL) and all this with the Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan and its potential impacts if king forecasts are low, getting area anglers something — anything — is pretty damned important.

So it’s good to hear that federal overseers are busting their butts to potentially get us on the river.

“We have put extra people on this and expect a decision this spring, but we don’t have a date. It won’t be January, but we’re moving quickly so Barry can make a decision as soon as possible,” NMFS’s Milstein says.

“This spring” technically means anywhere between March 20 and June 21, though an approval in the latter half of the period is utterly useless in terms of a fishery this year.

Trying to buy us some more time, I pointed out to Milstein that, according to University of Washington weather blogger Cliff Mass, the Westside’s meteorological spring actually starts “the third week in February.”

He didn’t respond.

Maybe he’s helping review all those comments.

Olympia Update: Fishermen Support Boosting Salmon Production For Orcas; More Bills In Play

Top Washington fishing organizations lent strong support to a bill that would raise 10 million more Chinook and other salmon a year — for orcas.

Leaders and representatives from Puget Sound Anglers, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Fish Northwest and Coastal Conservation Association, the salmon fishing ports of Ilwaco and Westport and commercial fleets all spoke in favor of House Bill 2417, which provides $1.55 million in General Fund revenues for the bid to benefit the state’s struggling killer whale population.

A MEMBER OF A SOUTHERN RESIDENT KILLER WHALE POD FLICKS ITS TAIL. (CANDACE EMMONS, NMFS, FLICKR, HTTPS://CREATIVECOMMONS.ORG/LICENSES/BY-NC-ND/2.0/)

It’s one of two major proposals this session to ramp up salmon production, the other being in Governor Jay Inslee’s budget, which also features fixing up hatcheries to support the goal and increased patrols to protect the marine mammals.

During yesterday’s public hearing on HB 2417 before the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, PSA’s Ron Garner called orcas “one of the neatest animals in the world” and shared up-close encounters as the whales chased salmon against his fishing boat to catch their dinner.

“I think this is a time when all of us to come together — the tribes, the commercials, the recreationals — all of us can come together because we need to save our precious orcas,” said Garner. “It’s a way of life, our fishing, and if we’re able to fish more with it, that’s great, but we can’t let our orcas go extinct on our watch. I think that’s an important thing. I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t support helping our orcas out.”

Butch Smith, representing both the Ilwaco and Westport Charterboat Associations, said, “The ocean salmon fishermen do not want the orca to go extinct, especially when we have the ability to produce salmon to help the orca whale.”

Steve Westrick, skipper of the Westport-based Hula Girl, said that diminishing hatchery production had put orcas close to a tipping point.

“The whole world’s watching us,” said Greg King of Friends of the Cowlitz. “Are we going to let these orcas die and have that blood on our hands? I don’t think we want that, and I support two four one seven.”

The bill also drew support from two representatives from the commercial fishing industry, Greg Mueller of the Washington Trollers Association and Dale Beasley of the Coalition of Coastal Fisheries.

But some like NSIA also called on prime sponsor Rep. Brian Blake, Democrat of Aberdeen, to expand it to include hatcheries in Puget Sound and bump up production goals.

And Garner pointed out that strong harbor seal predation on Chinook smolts also needs to be addressed.

Under the bill’s initial version, the salmon would be raised at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Kalama Falls, Beaver Creek, Naselle, Humptulips, Skookumchuck, and Lake Aberdeen hatcheries.

Penny Becker, WDFW diversity manager, said her agency was in favor of HB 2417.

“We’re committed to ramping up hatchery production to try and deal with this issue of prey availability for southern residents as possible,” she said.

Becker said WDFW was working with Blake on production goals and cautioned that Endangered Species Act issues, Hatchery Review Scientific Group recommendations and broodstock requirements needed to be considered.

Some of those concerns were echoed by retired WDFW Director Phil Anderson, who now sits on the Pacific Salmon Commission and is chair of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, and who also called the bill a “great start.”

“As we’re putting these packages together, looking at all available resources and facilities, that we keep in mind there can be multiple benefits coming from this additional production,” said Anderson. “Orcas is the primary and we ought to be looking and selecting stocks that are most likely to increase the prey base for southern resident killer whales. But we can also build into that strategy looking for economic opportunities in terms of reinforcing recreational and commercial fisheries as we make those selections.”

Nobody spoke against the bill.

Rep. Vincent Buys, a Republican who represents most of Whatcom County outside of southern Bellingham, asked WDFW Hatchery Division Manager Eric Kinne if the state still had the facilities to ramp up production.

“We have taken out some of the infrastructure but most of that infrastructure still exists,” Kinne said.

AGENCY-REQUEST LEGISLATION

As you might expect, HB 2417 isn’t the only fish-, wildlife- and habitat-related bill active in Olympia. Between state legislators and Department of Fish and Wildlife-request bills, there is a host of other proposals out there to flesh out.

Raquel Crosier, who is WDFW’s very busy legislative liason, provided a rundown on three bills the agency has asked for state representatives’ and senators’ help on.

They address sportsman recruitment, ADA accommodations, and a bill that would “fix” another from last year that delivered a “disproportionate” impact on instate guides.

Through the lens of our old friend the Olympia Outsider here’s a look at those and others in play:

Hunting and Fishing Recruitment Bill: With Washington sportsmen aging dramatically, House Bill 2505 and its companion in the Senate, SB 6198, aim to increase participation in fishing and hunting through a multi-pronged approach.

“It raises the youth age for fishers to 16, provides a hunter education graduate coupon of $20 on your first hunting license, and provides the department authority to develop bundled discount license packages (like multiyear or family packages),” Crosier says.

It would also let anglers buy a temporary license to fish during April’s lowland lakes opener instead of requiring a more expensive year-round one.

Recruitment is a big problem for fish and wildlife agencies, and WDFW is no different. According to handout Crosier forwarded, the average age of the state’s hunters and anglers has increased from 46 for both groups in 2007 to 52 and 54, respectively in 2015.

Prime sponsors: Rep. Brian Blake, D, South Coast, Sen. Dean Takko, D, South Coast

Bill status: Public hearing at 8 a.m. Jan. 17 before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Olympia Outsider’s off-the-cuff analysis: Anything that makes it easier and cheaper to get more people on the water in the woods, thereby helping conservation and, yes, our industry, is a good thing.

ADA Accommodations Bill: HB 2649 aims to make it “easier for disabled hunters and fishers to get into the sport and (improves) the department’s service delivery and accommodations process,” Crosier reports.

“(It) condenses multiple disabled hunting and fishing licenses and permits into one special use permit and expands who can sign disabled hunter and fisher reduced rate and accommodation forms,” she explains.

Prime sponsor: Rep. Andrew Barkis, R, Pierce County

Bill status: Public hearing at 8 a.m. Jan. 17 before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Olympia Outsider’s off-the-cuff analysis: Another good bill to pass.

Fishing Guide Fee Fiasco Fix Bill: While Washington hunters and anglers were spared fee increases last year, not so with fishing guides. Instate operators saw their license costs more than double, while out-of-state guides received a dramatic price break.

HB 2626 and SB 6317 aim to reverse that.

“The fishing guides got a disproportionate increase compare to other commercial license types,” says Crosier. “Also, we were tracking a court case on nonresident rates as session was going and didn’t quite get the nonresident commercial rates in line with the court-approved model. We are looking at increasing the nonresident rates to set them at the court-approved rate ($385 above the resident rates) and using that savings to reduce the resident fishing guides rates.”

Under the bill, a resident food fish guide license would be reduced from $280 to $210 (it was $130) while the corresponding nonresident fee would go from $355 to $595 (it was $630).

A resident game fish guide license would drop to $305 from $410 while the nonresident one would increase from $485 to $690.

Prime sponsors: Rep. Brian Blake, D, South Coast; Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D, Olympic Peninsula

Bill status: Public hearing at 8 a.m. Jan. 17 before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Olympia Outsider’s off-the-cuff analysis: Math has never been the OO’s strongest suit, but it should cost much more for nonresident guides to benefit from the state’s fish stocks. This corrects last year’s error.

ALSO PERCOLATING

Beyond those three agency-request bills, there are many more bills prowling the halls of power, including:

HB 2771: “Managing wolves using translocation”

Effect: Directs WDFW to immediately begin capturing and moving wolves from areas where they’re causing livestock depredations — for instance, Northeast Washington — to areas they’re not (yet).

Prime sponsor: Rep. Joel Kretz, R, Northeast Washington

Bill status: Referred to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Olympia Outsider’s off-the-cuff analysis: It’s clear Northeast Washington is bearing the brunt of wolf problems, but translocation bills haven’t moved much in recent years, and it’s possible this one won’t either.

HB 2276, SB 6315: “Concerning notification of wildlife transfer, relocation, or introduction into a new location”

Effect: Requires WDFW to hold a public hearing before moving critters to different parts of the state, and there must be 30 days advance notice of that hearing in the communities most affected.

Prime sponsors: Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R, North Cascades; Sen. Ken Wagoner, R, North Cascades

Bill status: Public hearing Jan. 11; subject of Jan. 18 House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee executive session.

Olympia Outsider’s off-the-cuff analysis: Inspired by word that the National Park Service and WDFW would like to move mountain goats from the Olympics to North Cascades, the bill still needs better definition so it doesn’t squelch releases of, say, pheasants or butterflies to state wildlife areas, or suburban-garbage-raiding bears into the woods.

SB 6127: “Improving the management of the state’s halibut fishery”

Effect: WDFW would need to “advocate” for halibut fishing openers to be on consecutive days instead of the opener’s Thursday, Saturday setup. Also sets the price of a halibut catch card at $5, which would go towards monitoring and managing the sport fishery.

Prime sponsors: Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D, Olympic Peninsula

Bill status: Referred to the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee.

Olympia Outsider’s off-the-cuff analysis: The senator from the Straits has been itching to address halibut fishing for awhile, and now can as the chair of the committee that can hear this bill.

SB 6268, “Creating the orca protection act”

Effect: Requires WDFW to add extra marine patrols to protect baby killer whales, orca feeding areas and pods during the busiest whale-watching weeks of the year.

Prime sponsor: Sen. Kevin Ranker, D, San Juan Islands

Bill status: Referred to the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee.

Olympia Outsider’s off-the-cuff analysis: Just so long as it’s funded and, say, everyone is policed evenly.

HB 2337: “Concerning civil enforcement of construction projects in state waters”

Effect: Would allow WDFW to issue a stop work order if hydraulic code or other rules were being broken and levy fines of up to $10,000 overall, up from $100 a day.

Prime sponsor: Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D, westernmost King County

Bill status: Public hearing Jan. 11; subject of Jan. 18 House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee executive session.

Olympia Outsider’s off-the-cuff analysis: From a salmon-friendly perspective, not a bad idea to put a little enforcement behind the rules.

HB 2175, “Concerning natural resource management activities”

Effect: Allows WDFW to sign off on a range of land management activities — brush cutting, grazing, firewood gathering and others — without having to prepare a state environmental impact statement.

Prime sponsor: Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, R, Northeast Washington

Bill status: Bill status: Public hearing Jan. 9; subject of Jan. 18 House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee executive session.

OTHER BILLS

In the wake of the Cypress Island netpen failure that led to the escape of upwards of 160,000 Atlantic salmon, a few of which are still turning up, three bills take on aquaculture in Puget Sound.

They would (HB 2418) study existing facilities and report back to the legislature before authorizing more to be built, bar the “cultivation” (HB 2260) of Atlantics in the state’s saltwaters, and prohibit DNR (SB 6086) from signing new or extending existing leases, effectively ending the farming of nonnative fish by 2024.

Of those, the last — sponsored by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D, San Juan Islands — has moved the furthest. It’s now in Senate Ways and Means.

An unresolved issue from last year’s lengthy legislative session, the Hirst Decision and its potential effect on rural landowners as well as salmon-bearing waters is the subject of two bills, HB 2740 from Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D, westernmost King County HB 2740 and SB 6091 from Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D, Olympic Peninsula.

The latter has made the most progress; a substitute bill was sent to the Senate floor and there were long negotiations with the legislature’s four main caucuses.

WDFW Posts Puget Sound Chinook Presentation For Today’s Commission Meeting

Ahead of this afternoon’s Fish and Wildlife Commission briefing, WDFW staffers have posted their presentation on the controversial proposed Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan.

The 52-page PDF is here and outlines the background on the salmon stock’s 1999 Endangered Species Act listing, its further declines, the reasoning behind the federal-court-mediated update of the previous plan, impacts the plan could potentially have on sport and tribal fisheries, and what’s next.

AN IMAGE FROM TODAY’S WDFW PRESENTATION TO THE FISH AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION. )WDFW)

Just as retired WDFW biologists and others have focused their attention, the presentation takes a deep dive on Stillaguamish Chinook — the river system has two runs, summers and falls — because as the document notes, it’s “likely to be one of the most constraining stocks.”

For the state and Stillaguamish Tribe, “extirpation of this population is not an option.”

The presentation puts forth several scenarios about how different Stilly forecasts could impact fisheries under the proposed plan, acknowleding sharp reductions to sport and tribal commercial and ceremonial fisheries under low returns to them possibly not being needed to meet goals with higher abundances.

Tying in the plight of southern resident orcas, the presentation says that the National Marine Fisheries Service has updated its maximum impact rates for several key Chinook stocks, lowering them.

And it says that NMFS has concerns with the plan as is and whether it “represents an acceptable level of risk for Puget Sound Chinook.”

The presentation states:

“Additional constraints on fisheries are likely needed in the new plan given decline in abundances and lower RER [rebuilding explooitation rate] values. This is a hard message to accept given that majority of Puget Sound recreational fisheries are mark -selective for Chinook, and that many of the impacts on Puget Sound stocks occur in fisheries north of Washington.”

But it also says that accepting higher levels of risk should come with mitigation strategies — “an approach used in prior plans where harvest rates were higher than NOAA was comfortable with as a starting point” — and points to possible additional measures such as increased hatchery production, marking fish different and habitat work.

More details after today’s conference.

Commission To Hear More On Puget Sound Chinook Plan Friday

Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioners will hold a teleconference later this week to hear more about the proposed 10-year Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan.

WDFW staffers will provide details about the controversial 338-page document they and the basin’s tribes submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service early last month to protect the ESA-listed salmon stock.

Members of the nine-member citizen panel have been hearing from anglers concerned about its potential reduced salmon seasons in the North Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca due to tightened fishery impact rates on Stillaguamish River fall kings.

And in a conference call earlier this month, Commission Vice Chair Larry Carpenter pointed out that the region’s bustling marine trade industry is fretting about the plan too.

“There’s a lot of fear out there,” he said.

Carpenter, a former owner of Master Marine in Mount Vernon, a Northwest Sportsman advertiser, called last week for the teleconference in hopes of being able to share “perhaps something positive” with stakeholders before late January’s big Seattle Boat Show “so it’s not a total disaster.”

With a booming stock market, steadily increasing home values and low interest rates, the boat market is otherwise primed for Puget Sound anglers with money to spend, but for many there needs to be a reasonable assurance there will be salmon to catch before they buy.

The plan was first posted in early December, and the commission — and public — were given some details about its development by WDFW brass and a state assistant attorney general at a Dec. 8 meeting.

Since then and even before, it’s been the subject of at least two negative analyses by former agency staffers, outrage from a local radio show host, as well as rumors.

Now, ahead of Friday’s call, WDFW has updated its webpage dedicated to the Chinook plan with more information about the plan.

It includes a note that “NOAA Fisheries has already informed the state and treaty tribes that the plan is insufficient, noting that several key salmon stocks would not meet new — more restrictive — federal conservation objectives. For that reason, NOAA is asking the co-managers to provide more information and analysis on the conservation objectives within the proposed plan.”

The public can listen in on the 2 p.m., Friday, Jan. 12, commission teleconference, though will not be able to comment — that can be done at the commission’s Jan. 18-20 meetings in Ridgefield.

To do so, contact the Fish and Wildlife Commission (360) 902-2267 or commission@dfw.wa.gov by 4 p.m. Jan. 11.

Editor’s note: An earlier version misstated the location of the Jan. 18-20 meetings. They will be held at WDFW’s Region 5 headquarters in Ridgefield, not in Olympia.

Fishing Show Host Blasts WDFW Over Proposed Puget Sound Chinook Plan

WDFW’s proposed 10-year Puget Sound Chinook plan drew more strong negative reaction over the weekend, and a “possible decision” on it by the Fish and Wildlife Commission looms later this month.

First, the latest loathing for the plan.

After a 13-minute interview with an author of a Tidal Exchange article out last week looking at Stillaguamish River fall kings and the basin’s deep-seated habitat problems, local radio show host Tom Nelson went off.

RADIO SHOW HOST TOM NELSON, THE YOUNGER OF THE TWO TOM NELSONS INVOLVED FOR DECADES IN PUGET SOUND FISHING ISSUES. (TVW)

“I’ve never been so disappointed in WDFW that they would come out with this tremendously misguided and useless piece of public policy,” said the cohost of 710 ESPN Seattle’s The Outdoor Line on Saturday morning. “It’s the worst plan that I could have possibly envisioned with regard to actually addressing the situation and helping the industry.”

(Full disclosure: Northwest Sportsman and our many advertisers are part of said industry.)

The Stilly portion of the proposal, which the state agency as well as 17 Puget Sound tribes sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service for review last month, could sharply reduce salmon fishing opportunities across the North Sound and Straits because on its own, it does not seem likely the river will suddenly start producing enough Endangered Species Act-listed Stilly Chinook in the future, despite new, lower impacts.

Indeed, 30 years of restricted state and tribal fisheries on that system haven’t had much if any affect on rebuilding the stock so far.

“Just go to WDFW and run down to page 167 of the plan with regard to the Stilly, where it says, ‘Due to habitat constraints, this plan won’t work,’ essentially. I mean, it says so in the plan — in the plan!” Nelson said.

The portion of the 388-page document he’s referring to reads: “Due to the limited productivity of existing habitat, it is unlikely that fishery actions alone can rebuild abundance of Stillaguamish Chinook to higher levels.”

This new harvest management plan arose out of the highly contentious North of Falcon 2016, which took WDFW and treaty tribes two months longer to resolve than usual.

Afterwards, the state received a request from the U.S. Department of Justice and tribal officials to “meet and confer,” which resulted in confidential discussions mediated by a U.S. District Court judge, according to a Attorney General’s Office deputy.

The top priority was an updated 10-year resource management plan for Puget Sound Chinook, one that would also provide more surety of seasons.

But word of the yearlong closed-door talks and their final product took not only anglers but the Fish and Wildlife Commission by surprise.

Anglers are hoping the commission can do something.

Nelson and cohost Rob Endsley urged them to contact the citizen oversight panel — along with state legislators — to ask that the plan be altered as it applies to the Stilly, one of 15 management units it addresses.

Besides sending emails to the commission, fishermen can also speak to the members during open public comment at next week’s meeting.

The Puget Sound Chinook Management Plan is the subject of an hour-and-a-half briefing by Kyle Adicks, intergovernmental salmon policy advisor, on the afternoon of Friday, January 19.

Interestingly, the words “possible decision” accompany that agenda item.

It’s a relatively rare placeholder that’s mainly been used with legislative proposals in recent years. It’s meant as a heads up “that the commission preserves the option to provide further guidance,” according to the office of the commission.

Yet as much heat as WDFW is taking over the plan, on the flip side, it appears to be utterly screwed by three little letters:

E, S and A.

With Puget Sound Chinook federally listed since March 1999 and declines continuing, WDFW is more and more straitjacketed to protect the salmon so it can get federal permits/ESA coverage to hold seasons on and/or around the fish.

It can’t very well go ahead and ignore that requirement either, as without the permit, it faces lawsuits, like with the basin’s steelhead a few years ago now, or it would leave us all on the beaches and boat ramps for who knows how long, like it looked might happen for awhile in 2016 as the agency considered a go-it-alone NOF permit.

Without casting aspersions on the scientific- and conservation-oriented nature of WDFW and its dedicated staffers, I suspect they probably would not have come up with let alone agreed to this new Chinook plan if they had the choice.

To be blunt, Unsworth et al don’t make money to run their programs off of closed fisheries whatsoever.

And they’re not really in the business of deviously figuring out ways to piss off some of the most fervent of Washington’s anglers.

(OK, so it kinda looks like that more and more every day.)

What they are is stuck trying to provide opportunities in the ever-tightening vice of ESA and with critically damaged habitat that in some places is, frankly, unrepairable.

Part of me wonders if that line that Nelson referred to is being slightly misinterpreted, that it was actually written into the plan by WDFW and its tribal coauthors to catch our eyes to raise hell about its futility, or as a plea for help.

Proposed Puget Sound Chinook Plan Panned In Another Analysis

Adopting a new Puget Sound Chinook plan that could further decrease the region’s salmon angling won’t save fall kings in a highly degraded watershed, where the stock appears to be less and less able to naturally replace itself despite 30 years of restrictions.

That’s the nut of another analysis of comanagers’ 10-year harvest management plan now out for federal review.

THE SUN RISES OVER THE LOWER STILLAGUAMISH RIVER VALLEY AND HIGHWAY 530 NEAR ARLINGTON IN OCTOBER 2014. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Headlined “WDFW Gives Up Puget Sound Fishing… For Nothing,” the pro-sportsfishing blog Tidal Exchange focused on the Stillaguamish River’s highly constraining Chinook, concluding that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Puget Sound tribes’ proposal is worse than the status quo for two primary reasons:

“Because it allows — for another 10 years — the continued narrative that further curtailing fishing will lead to recovery on this river”;

And it “seems likely to deliver … a negative spiral for recovery and WDFW itself” through the loss of as much as an estimated $32 million annually in economic activity due to curtailed Chinook fisheries in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and North Sound and lost angler interest.

Where a mid-December review by a retired longtime WDFW salmon expert focused on that potential “tighter noose” on fisheries, in this new one, authors Curt Kraemer and Brian Fleming look at the Stilly’s underlying and overwhelming habitat problems.

The basin does include the pristine, sheer-sided 76-square-mile Boulder River Wilderness but also hundreds of square miles of scalped heights of the North and South Forks and their ever-shifting glacial strata underneath midelevation tree farms, as well as a highly modified floodplain, presenting problems from top to bottom, from Segelsen Ridge to Port Susan.

The authors use the analogy that before settlement, the Stillaguamish watershed was a 5-gallon bucket that produced runs of 50,000 Chinook, but with farming, diking, logging and development, the bucket can now only hold a pint of water.

Between tribally produced hatchery and natural-origin fall kings, returns have declined from around 900 in 1988 to 700 in 2015, according to a graph directly from the management plan, which was posted at this time last month and which we first reported on.

(PUGET SOUND CHINOOK HARVEST MANAGEMENT PLAN)

Because Puget Sound Chinook are listed under the Endangered Species Act, Washington managers have federal overseers looking over their shoulders asking how they’re going to protect them.

With the fisheries that impact Stilly kings the most outside of state control — namely off Vancouver Island, British Columbia and Alaska — the only way currently to get more back on the gravel is to reduce fisheries here.

Yet it’s a catch-22 — even fully curbing those would yield “surprisingly few … perhaps a dozen” more spawners, the authors write.

I know this will come across as the equivalent of the radio stations that last month switched to a Christmas format and put “Sleigh Ride” by The Spice Girls on heavy rotation until you couldn’t stand it, but the fix really does come down to one thing.

“Unless and until we repair the bucket, the habitat, we’re never going to see those numbers again,” the authors argue.

Furthermore, Kraemer — who retired from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife after decades as a fisheries biologist in charge of the Stilly among other rivers — and Fleming say that by reducing Chinook fishing even further, you “end up losing the most engaged and enthusiastic resource we have — which is the tens of thousands of license buyers” — who could otherwise muster up the public support as well as manpower for habitat fixes.

That in itself will be a pretty tall order because it’s not easy to convince people that there really is a habitat problem for Chinook in such a beautiful, bucolic valley, one of postcard views, tidy farms, and a smaller human population, relatively speaking.

Yet there is, as salmon production here shows.

The authors call for anglers to write to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission and urge members of the citizen oversight panel to confirm with other experts that their biological arguments are sound, “as the social and economic implications of the proposed Puget Sound fisheries changes are enormous.”

Meanwhile, the commission will be briefed by WDFW staff about said plan at their upcoming meeting in Ridgefield.

Kyle Adicks, intergovernmental salmon advisor, is scheduled to speak beginning at 1:20 p.m. on Jan. 19. It’ll be a chance for agency brass to defend the plan.

At least one commissioner has already voiced displeasure with it.

Vice Chair Larry Carpenter told Director Jim Unsworth that for such a potentially weighty document, it was “an unacceptable practice” to not brief the commission during its behind-closed-doors, federal-judge-mediated development.

The plan is now being reviewed by the National Marine Fisheries Service for midspring 2019 approval, but WDFW has stated it wants to implement it starting with 2018 salmon seasons.

A Look Back At 2017’s Biggest Northwest Fishing, Hunting Stories

As we like to do about this time every December, we’re taking a look back at the year that was in Northwest fish and wildlife and the management thereof.

2017 certainly was a unique one, at least looking back through the several hundred blog entries me and a certain Wolfy von Wolferstein IIIIX wrote or posted this year.

Pyrosomes and netpens exploded, a Game of Thrones-worthy winter descended on parts of the region, starving some big game herds. Salmon and steelhead are still coping with a hungover Pacific that swilled too much Blobquila, while poachers were exposed and increasing attention is being placed on pinnipeds and their predations.

All right, I could go on, but it’s almost Christmas and I probably should wrap some presents now, so let’s get this review on the road.

But if I’ve missed anything worthy, please bring it to my attention at awalgamott@media-inc.com and I will fold it in.

THE YEAR IN FISHING

As with every year, there were bright spots for fishermen, and there were not-so-bright spots.

Once again, Puget Sound anglers saw restricted fisheries, with some prime waters closed entirely to protect very weak coho and pink runs. In fact, it looks like the humpy return was the worst all the way back to 1999 if not well before, and a well-placed observer worries that it may be till 2023 that one major river comes back on line for the odd-year stock.

Still, Chinook fishing was decent this summer, especially in the South Sound. Tons of kings came back to a river on the other side of the base of the Kitsap Peninsula too, but for the second year in a row all anglers could do was watch from the bank as some 35,000 swam into the state’s George Adams Hatchery and several tens of thousands more were netted by a tribe claiming the entire Skokomish River as their own.

Yet in the midst of it all, those “prison break Atlantics” provided an unexpected lift to late summer fishing after somewhere around 150,000 or so of the East Coast salmon escaped from a San Juan Islands netpen.

(KEVIN KLEIN)

Anglers zipped out to Cypress Island in all manner of craft, and some were able to whack and stack great gobs of the starving fish for several days afterwards and before they began to scatter to the four seas.

ANGLERS FISH ALONG THE SHORE NEAR THE LOCATION OF THE CYPRESS ISLAND NETPEN IN HOPES OF LANDING ATLANTIC SALMON. (DNR)

With salmon and tuna only so-so off the Oregon Coast, bottomfish attracted heavy charter and private boat effort, but to protect the quota ODFW had to shut season down early in mid-September, angering both fleets.

A couple weeks later, managers did open waters outside of 40 fathoms for anglers using long-leader midwater gear — and they may be able to fish the same depths next spring and summer under a federal proposal now out for final comment before approval.

KEVIN RAINES AND ANDY MOSER DRIFT FISH THE MIDDLE SAUK RIVER ON A FINE SPRING DAY WITH WHITEHORSE IN THE BACKGROUND. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Also out for a last-chance review, a winter-spring fishery for the Skagit and Sauk Rivers’ big, brawny wild steelhead.

The question is whether WDFW has enough funding to monitor and police a 2018 fishery, but Director Jim Unsworth vowed, “If we get the approval, we’re going to make it happen.”

As for new state record fish, while 2017 didn’t leave us with many, Washington’s and Idaho’s books still bear the eraser smudges as fish and wildlife officials had to update high marks for blue shark, Pacific sanddab and tiger trout after they changed hands in quick succession – three times on the same day for that last one!

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT, RICHARD MILLER AND HIS 2.65-POUND IDAHO TIGER TROUT, MIKE BENOIT AND HIS 37.98-POUND WESTPORT OPAH, BOB EVERITT AND HIS 1.22-POUND PACIFIC SANDDAB AND ERIK HOLCOMB AND HIS 49.5-POUND WESTPORT BLUE SHARK. (IDFG, WDFW)

THE YEAR IN POACHERS

“They just want to see stuff die. It’s a sick and twisted mentality; you and I will not get it.”

So said WDFW Deputy Chief Mike Cenci after news broke that at least 10 Southwest Washington residents were suspected of widespread poaching in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

WILLIAM J. HAYNES, ONE OF MORE THAN 10 SOUTHWEST WASHINGTON RESIDENTS SUSPECTED OF WIDESPREAD POACHING ON BOTH SIDES OF THE COLUMBIA AND HERE SPLATTERED WITH THE BLOOD OF A BLACK BEAR SHOT AT EXTREMELY CLOSE RANGE AFTER IT WAS ALLEGEDLY ILLEGALLY PURSUED WITH HOUNDS. (WDFW)

Their alleged crimes only came to light after Oregon State Troopers stopped two Cowlitz County residents as they investigated a string of illegal shooting and wasting of mule deer on winter range near Mt. Hood.

At year-end, William J. Haynes faced 64 charges in Skamania County, many of which could be felonies because of prior poaching history, while Kelso’s Erik C. Marti faces 28 gross misdemeanors there. Joseph A. Dills and his father Eddy Dills, both of Longview, face 64 and 26 counts as well.

In other notable cases, Nathan Crouch, who killed and wasted two bull elk in Northeast Oregon and went on the lam for nearly 11 months, was sentenced to 60 days in jail and to pay fines and restitution in excess of $17,000.

NATHAN CROUCH AND THE TWO NORTHEAST OREGON BULL ELK HE POACHED AT NIGHT IN MID-NOVEMBER 2016 AND LEFT TO WASTE. (OSP)

A Wallowa County rancher was fined $18,000 after pleading guilty to shooting six of 25 elk found dead on his and neighboring properties last winter. Larry Michael “Mike” Harshfield was also sentenced to work with ODFW and county prosecutors and give three presentations to fellow livestock producers about the right way to deal with elk depredation issues.

AN OREGON STATE POLICE FISH AND WILDLIFE TROOPER INVESTIGATES AN ELK CARCASS. (OSP)

In Central Washington, the Bullwinkle case was dismissed because the phrase “branch antlered bull elk” isn’t clearly defined in Washington’s hunting regulations, letting Tod L. Reichert off the hook for shooting the all-but-tame eponymous Ellensburg elk on yet another raffle tag for the Salkum cedar magnate.

THE YEAR IN PREDATORS

Pinnipeds continued to pose problems for Northwest fish managers, with ODFW warning that ESA-listed Willamette wild winter steelhead are at “high risk of going extinct” due to male sea lions feasting on the fish.

A CALIFORNIA SEA LION THROWS A SALMONID IN SPRING 2016 AT WILLAMETTE FALLS. (ODFW)

In a replay of what happened with Herschel at the Ballard Locks in the 1980s, the protected marine mammals that gathered at Willamette Falls chewed up at least a quarter of 2017’s native steelhead run (a very low 512 were counted getting past the sea lions).

A pair of Congressmen representing the Lower Columbia introduced another bill to give state and tribal managers more power to remove sea lions, and leaders from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association lent their support to it.

IN THIS SCREEN GRAB FROM A TWITTER VIDEO, REP. JAIME HERRERA BEUTLER SHOWS A HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES SUBCOMMITTEE PHOTOS OF SOME OF THE “OFFENDERS” PICKING OFF ESA-LISTED SALMON AND STEELHEAD AND OTHER COLUMBIA WATERSHED STOCKS. (TWITTER)

As the year came to a close, the National Marine Fisheries Commission was taking public comment on an ODFW proposal to take out sea lions at the falls.

And in Puget Sound, a study found that competition primarily from harbor seals for Chinook is a larger limiting factor in killer whales’ ability to recover than fishing is these days.

That followed a study from early in the year that found the world’s densest population of the seals may also be impacting the recovery of the inland sea’s ESA-listed salmon species.

Harbor seals are also a problem for steelhead smolts, which was one of the messages of an interactive challenge that debuted this year, Survive the Sound.

For it, four dozen digital fish replicated the journeys of previous radio-tagged fish on their trips from the Nisqually and Skokomish Rivers out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

LIKE SO MANY OTHERS IN THE INTERACTIVE CHALLENGE, BLITZ THE NORTHWEST SPORTSMAN-SPONSORED NISQUALLY WILD WINTER STEELHEAD SMOLT, DID NOT “SURVIVE THE SOUND. HE DIED IN THE RIVER AFTER ONLY THE FIRST DAY OF HIS JOURNEY TOWARDS THE MOUTH OF THE STRAITS.

Most all of the faux fish died, highlighting early marine survival problems for the ESA-listed stock, a fact reinforced by yet another study released in June and pointing to issues once the smolts hit the salt.

On the land side of things, last January federal agencies put out their alternatives for restoring grizzly bears in the North Cascades, a prospect that I was surprised my lovely wife Amy — the epitome of the person you’d think would support it — was not in favor of.

Then last week, for reasons that aren’t clear, planning was reportedly put “indefinitely on hold.”

On the wolf front, 2017 was as ever a very active year, with Washington’s population pushing into the low triple digits, while Oregon’s grew by three to 115.

Wolf fans claimed that the latter state’s growth had stagnated, but that was vociferously denounced by an actual Oregon wolf who cited Washington’s seeming pause in the low 50s between 2013 and 2014.

“WHO SAID SOMETHING ABOUT US BEING DELICATE SNOWFLAKES?!?” (ODFW)

In eastern portions of the Beaver State, Phase III management benchmarks were met for the first time, providing state managers and livestock producers more tools, but after a months-long review of an updated wolf plan, a final decision by the Fish and Wildlife Commission on implementing it was put off till next month.

The year saw continued and growing efforts to head off wolf-livestock conflicts, but there were still depredations by the Smackout, Sherman and Harl Butte Packs that led to lethal removals.

Washington also saw its first two instances of ranchhands using caught-in-the-act provisions to kill wolves attacking livestock, while in Oregon, an elk hunter was found to have acted in self-defense by officials after he shot one of three wolves that had approached him, and then his story was in turn attacked.

In Washington, out-of-state environmental groups tried to tie WDFW’s hands over lethal management with two lawsuits, drawing a rebuke from instate wolf advocates.

WILDLIFE BIOLOGISTS WORK ON A SEDATED WOLF NEAR MARBLEMOUNT, THE FIRST CAPTURED AND COLLARED IN WESTERN WASHINGTON. (USFWS)

And finally, a wolf was captured in eastern Skagit County, a number were illegally killed in Northeast Washington and Southern Oregon, a North-central Washington tribe OKed a limited off-reservation hunt, while WDFW launched a widescale predator-prey study across the northern tier of the 509 and released an assessment of the state’s big game herds that found no clear sign deer and elk populations were being limited by predation but that a subherd of moose north of Spokane bears watching.

THE YEAR IN LAND

In February, an Oregon state lands board took initial steps to sell the 82,000-acre Ellliott State Forest to a timber company and local tribe after logging revenues plunged following environmental lawsuits.

A STREAM CUTS THROUGH THE ELLIOTT STATE FOREST BETWEEN SCOTTSBURG, REEDSPORT AND COOS BAY. (OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY)

But a plan Governor Kate Brown came up with in May kept it public, while continuing to log it and protect coho and other species, a big win for Reedsport hunters, anglers and other recreationists.

That same month and a ways up the Oregon Coast, Lincoln County residents voted to ban the aerial spraying of tree farms with pesticides. In October, the measure was challenged in court, where a judge is still mulling a decision.

A CLEARCUT HILLSIDE RISES ABOVE THE SILETZ RIVER ABOVE MOONSHINE PARK. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Though the Washington Legislature never approved a Capital Budget in 2017 due to the Hirst Decision hold-up, money was in the pipeline for WDFW to buy another 1,000-acre chunk of private timberlands in a public-land-poor section of eastern Klickitat County.

A WASHINGTON RECREATION AND CONSERVATION OFFICE IMAGE SHOWS PART OF THE THE SIMCOE MOUNTAIN PROJECT. (RCO)

In reviewing recently created national monuments for the Trump Administration, Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke glanced at the Hanford Reach, leaving many bristling, before recommending that Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou along with two in Utah be shrunk.

Speaking of Zinke, his legacy will be a complex one that crosses paths with Teddy Roosevelt in some regards such as calling on his agencies to increase fishing and hunting access, but it remains to be seen in others.

Not long after riding into office, Zinke reversed a late Obama Administration order phasing out the use of lead bullets and fishing gear on federal refuges.

DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR SECRETARY DAN ZINKE AT A SIGNING CEREMONY. (DOI)

THE YEAR AT WDFW

In certain lights, 2017 will go down as WDFW’s no good very bad horrible year.

It kicked in January off with word that a couple hundred thousand steelhead smolts and sea-run cutthroat couldn’t be accounted for at the state-operated Cowlitz River hatchery, which led to an uncomfortable hearing before a state Senate committee for Director Jim Unsworth and fellow brass.

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)

The agency’s fee-increase bill got mowed down by sportsmen and state Republican senators, though the state legislature ultimately did provide a one-time $10 million General Fund infusion instead.

Then there were the two stories focusing on a “sexualized culture” at  WDFW’s Olympia headquarters and a North-central Washington salmon and steelhead hatchery, the latter of which led the Douglas County Public Utility District to end WDFW’s contract to operate the Wells Dam facility.

While the agency may have held the scientific high ground in all the hyperbole surrounding August’s Great Escape Of Atlantic Salmon — OMG, they’re gonna give baby killer whales cancer! — public opinion and the rest of state government was not with them whatsoever.

WRECKAGE OF COOKE AQUACULTURE’S CYPRESS ISLAND NETPEN WHICH HAD HOUSED 300,000-PLUS ATLANTIC SALMON BEFORE BREAKING. (DNR)

Meanwhile, honchos were behind closed courtroom doors all year with tribal and Department of Justice officials and a federal judge hammering out a 10-year Puget Sound Chinook harvest management plan meant to conserve the ESA-listed stocks and avoid North of Falcon nastiness but which also could end up severely restricting sport fisheries.

Word of the secret negotiations also came after anglers had been clamoring for a year to open up NOF talks, and they were done without informing the Fish and Wildlife Commission about the specifics, which the vice chair called “an unacceptable practice.”

WASHINGTON FISH AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION VICE CHAIRMAN LARRY CARPENTER TOLD WDFW DIRECTOR JIM UNSWORTH HE WAS NOT HAPPY TO HAVE BEEN LEFT OUT OF THE LOOP AS A PROPOSED 10-YEAR PUGET SOUND CHINOOK HARVEST MANAGEMENT PLAN WAS NEGOTIATED IN SECRET BY AGENCY, TRIBAL AND DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE OFFICIALS. (TVW)

And for extra credit, WDFW also shot some fawns and an elk calf for being too friendly, then grabbed a West Seattle family’s longtime pet raccoon. Yes, they were just enforcing wildlife laws that were being violated, but the actions were never in a million years going to play well in this TV market.

On the flip side, the agency embarked on an effort to simplify its fishing regulations, drawing nearly 1,000 comments on proposals for the freshwater side of things, part 1 of 3.

And WDFW’s roadkill program was a huge hit in its first year, with more than 1,600 deer and elk salvaged off the state’s highways at the conclusion of its first year in late June. Residents of Olympia, Spokane and Port Angeles in particular took advantage of it, putting way more in their freezers than the next closest towns.

AMONG THE FIRST ELK SALVAGED IN WASHINGTON WHEN THE ROADKILL PROGRAM KICKED OFF IN JULY 2016 WAS THIS ONE IN PIERCE COUNTY. (RANDY HART JR.)

And it inspired Oregon to follow suit. Legislators approved collecting vehicle-struck wapiti and deer, but Beaver State interstate epicureans couldn’t immediately dive into the ditch in search of dinner — ODFW has till Jan. 1, 2019 to get the program in place.

THE YEAR IN WILDLIFE WOES

Twelve months ago we were in the midst of a far snowier and colder winter than usual, with some parts of the region seeing the worst weather in two decades.

Desperate pronghorn and elk herds in west-central Idaho died after eating poisonous Japanese yew, while 20 antelope out of a herd of 500 had to be put down after getting trapped on a reservoir’s ice not long after 41 elk died trying to cross Brownlee.

(MARK SANDS, IDFG)

In Washington’s Blue Mountains, where a heavy, wet snowstorm hit in early February, a hungry herd of elk ate up a three-decade-old haystack.

On the Oregon side, ODFW reported that temperatures did not get above freezing for a month in Baker County, leading to sharp tag reductions there and in surrounding areas for mule deer and pronghorns.

A PAIR OF COW ELK “BOX” AT WENAHA WILDLIFE AREA LAST WINTER. (KEITH KOHL, ODFW)

Idaho wildlife managers launched the biggest winter feeding effort in 20 years, but mysteriously in Central Washington, 10 western Yakima County bighorn rams eschewed a feeding station less than a mile away and starved to death instead.

A SCREENGRAB FROM A WDFW WEEKLY WILDLIFE PROGRAM REPORT SHOWS THE CARCASS OF ONE OF 10 RAMS FOUND IN “ONE SMALL AREA” ON CLEMAN MOUNTAIN IN MARCH. (WDFW)

Several months later and to the south in Klickitat County, a number of dead fawns signaled Washington’s first ever cases of adenovirus hemorrhagic disease, or AHD, which popped up near Goldendale.

Still further south, a Madras resident was cited for bringing banned wildlife parts back from Montana, where chronic wasting disease was found for the first time in free-ranging deer this fall, while two hunters from the Rogue Valley were cited for coming back from Wyoming and Colorado with certain elk parts.

Hoof rot continued to spread throughout Oregon’s northern tier and up the I-5 corridor in Western Washington.

In the latter state, a bill passed in Olympia gave WSU the lead to monitor stricken elk, as well as look into the causes and possible solutions to the disease that’s leaving the animals limping and worse.

Meanwhile, on the Olympic Peninsula, mountain goats have worn out their welcome. National Park Service officials want to dramatically lower their numbers, and one plan calls for many to be relocated to the North Cascades, where they would replenish local herds. Sharpshooters may — or may not — be called on later to remove goats in ONP as well.

A TRIO OF MOUNTAIN GOATS CLING TO ROCKS ON THE RIDGE ABOVE THE ROAD TO HURRICANE RIDGE. (OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK)

Late in the year, the Colville Tribes as well as the Yakamas both hauled in more Nevada pronghorns. A mid-March aerial survey also found more outside the South-central nation’s reservation than inside.

Unfortunately, surveys also found the Lower 48’s last caribou herd dipped to as few as 10 animals as habitat and predation issues come to a head. Last-gasp efforts are being prepared in southern British Columbia this winter to protect cows and newborn calves in maternity pens.

The buck — hell, the trophy animal — of the year in the Northwest has to be Jake Fife’s monster Washington public-lands buck, which after the 60-day drying period scored 233 inches gross and 229 inches net Pope and Young and is the new record Washington nontypical archery muley.

(JAKE FIFE)

And finally, for the first time Oregon and Washington wildlife managers began testing how well drones might work for counting critters.

A DRONE FLIES NEAR SADDLE MOUNTAIN, IN THE FOOTHILLS OF OREGON’S NORTH COAST, DURING INITIAL TESTING FOR USE DURING ELK SURVEYS. (RICK SWART, ODFW)

ODFW and Oregon State University researchers used one of the unmanned aerial platforms in tests on the thickly forested North Coast last spring, while this month, WDFW and a University of Montana grad student used one to look for moose in Washington’s northeastern corner.

WDFW’S RICH HARRIS, FIELD TECH SETH BOOGAARD AND THE UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA’S JAMES GOERZ FIELD TEST A DRONE. (WDFW)

THE YEAR IN THE NATURAL WORLD

The bender the Pacific went on from 2013-15 is behind us, but the hangover from The Blob still lingers, according to ocean scientists.

Surveying off Oregon and Washington they not only found some of the lowest numbers of young Columbia Chinook and coho seen in the past two decades — potentially bad news for 2018 and 2019 — but a massive explosion of pyrosomes, which had never been encountered in our waters before 2014.

PYROSOMES RANGE FROM A FEW INCHES TO MORE THAN 2 FEET LONG. (HILARIE SORENSEN/NOAA FISHERIES)

The floppy sea pickle things clogged up fishermen’s and researchers’ gear, and weren’t the only unusual visitor out there. Jack mackerel catches were the highest ever and there was a “complete shift” in the predominate jellyfish species off our coast.

Crabbing was marked by closures and delays to coastal sport and commercial seasons, while biologists wonder if warm waters several years ago didn’t lead to a dearth of adult Dungies in the South Sound this season.

Also on the shellfish front, more invasive European green crabs have unfortunately turned up in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca and then in Admiralty Inlet, at the head of Puget Sound proper. 

On land, the rainy, snowy, cold winter was of course followed by what was the warmest, driest summer ever in some places. Fires rampaged through the Cascades while smoke settled in for a hazy July, August and September.

The largest blaze was the Chetco Bar Fire, which burned 191,000 acres in the upper and middle watershed of the famed Oregon South Coast salmon and steelhead stream, while the Diamond Creek Fire chewed up another 128,000 acres in Washington’s increasingly bare Pasayten Wilderness.

Neither fire caused the immediate impact that September’s fast-moving Eagle Creek Fire did, forcing ODFW to release young fall and tule Chinook early and evacuate another 1.75 million kings and coho from its Cascade Hatchery, closing the Columbia around Bonneville to fishing so aircraft could safely dip water to fight the fire, and even torched a hole in the daily dam count.

THE EAGLE CREEK FIRE, ALLEGED TO HAVE BEEN CAUSED BY A KID PLAYING WITH FIREWORKS, BURNS ABOVE ODFW’S CASCADE HATCHERY. (ODFW)

Fire closures also meant deer and elk hunters had to find new spots to chase bucks and bulls in the Cascades.

SMOKE BILLOWS FROM MT. DOOM. (INCIWEB)

And in late June, a fire swept through the breeding compound of endangered pygmy rabbits in Central Washington, killing 70. But the death toll would have been higher had it not been for the fast thinking of WDFW wildlife biologist Jon Gallie who mojoed the facility’s irrigation system to saturate a patch of sagebrush where 32 bunnies were able to find shelter from the flames.

THE YEAR ON THE COMMISSIONS

Keeping the fishing regulations on the shared Columbia the same is pretty important, allowing anglers from both states to fish shore to shore, but for awhile this year, concurrency was in real danger.

It began late last year and centered around Snake River fall Chinook impact allocations between the sport and commercial netting fleets. This year those were scheduled to move from 70-30 to 80-20, per a 2013 agreement between the states.

LIZ HAMILTON OF THE NORTHWEST SPORTFISHING INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION PROVIDES COMMENT TO THE OREGON FISH AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION ON COLUMBIA RIVER REFORMS DURING A PERISCOPE BROADCAST OF THE MEETING. (PERISCOPE)

But in late 2016 Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife Commission hesitated, so in January Washington’s offered a 75-25 compromise. Then in an absolute stunner, Oregon voted to actually go backwards, to 66-34.

That led to an extraordinary letter from Oregon Governor Kate Brown to the commission to “change its decision regarding the non-tribal Lower Columbia fishery reforms” and which gave them an April 3 deadline to do so.

After a five-hour mid-March marathon meeting, members moved back to 70-30 but without a timeline for ending gillnetting.

This year also saw changes on Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, beginning with the departure of longtime members Conrad Mahnken and Miranda Wecker and arrival of Barbara Baker and Don McIsaac.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT, BARBARA BAKER, MIRANDA WECKER, DON MCISAAC AND CONRAD MAHNKEN. (TVW, C-SPAN, WDFW)

Baker is the former chief clerk of the state House of Representatives, while McIsaac is the retired longtime director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council. Sportfishing advocates were initially cautiously optimistic on both.

THE YEAR ON THE COLUMBIA

In January, a new biop for Mitchell Act-funded hatcheries in the Columbia watershed came out. It reduced fall Chinook releases, boosted coho at select programs and set limits on salmon and steelhead production.

That led the Wild Fish Conservancy to drop its lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, while also providing a glimmer of hope for Cowlitz steelheaders who’d like to see an early-winter-returning stock again, now that Chambers are no longer released.

Speaking of releases, for the first time in 30 years, coho were swimming in the upper Grande Ronde watershed, thanks to a joint ODFW-Nez Perce project that put a half million small silvers into the Lostine River in March.

TWO OF THE HALF-MILLION COHO RELEASED INTO NORTHEAST OREGON’S LOSTINE RIVER, THE FIRST TIME COHO ARE REPORTED TO HAVE BEEN IN THE GRANDE RONDE BASIN IN OVER THREE DECADES. (CRITFC)

As for adult fish, the Columbia’s spring Chinook run was underwhelming, while its shad return provided a brief moment of holy @$@#& %$%@!! when a dam-counting error showed just under a half million had passed in a single June day, threatening the very foundations of Bonneville Dam.

Turned out, only half that many actually had passed, but this year’s 3-plus million shad yielded the second highest catch since 1969, almost 170,000.

A BIG RUN OF SHAD YIELDED WHAT’S BELIEVED TO BE THE SECOND HIGHEST SPORT CATCH SINCE 1969. (ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS)

The steelhead run went the opposite way, posting its worst return since the late 1970s. At one point, it looked like it might actually be the worst ever after an F- of an inseason update suggested just 54,000 A-runs would return.

Anglers saw reduced limits and rolling closures up the Columbia and Snake to protect those fish and critically low numbers of B-runs — the catch of fewer than 1,700 was the lowest since fishery closures 40 years ago — before improved counts eventually led to some fishing opportunities targeting hatchery steelhead less than 28 inches long.

Looking back on it, 2017 wasn’t so bad for the big river’s salmon fisheries. We enjoyed the fourth and sixth highest summer and fall Chinook catches between Bonneville and Astoria since 1969, as well as landed 28,000 brights and tules at Buoy 10. The coho haul was also the fourth most in nearly 50 years.

This year also turned out to be a great one to “roam from chrome,” as our May cover put it — the Columbia was en fuego for walleye, with the likes of even Buzz Ramsey and ODFW getting into the act of highlighting the fishery.

NORTHWEST SALMON AND STEELHEAD WORLD TO WALLEYE: CAN WE KISS AND MAKE UP?  (YAKIMA BAIT)

And what’s more, 2017 saw the return of sturgeon retention fisheries in the estuary and lower river after a four-year hiatus. The seasons were short, but they provided a good opportunity for fishermen to chase the Columbia’s diamondsides.

MAY 2017 NORTHWEST SPORTSMAN COVER GUY MIKE FUNG SHOWS OFF A LOWER COLUMBIA STURGEON CAUGHT DURING THE COLUMBIA ESTUARY OPENER. (ANDY SCHNEIDER)

Sturgeon were also on the plate for many Spokane-area anglers after Lake Roosevelt opened for the first time in three-plus decades as hatchery fish there grew to retainable size. (No, their adipose fins were not clipped.)

And boy howdy did they catch ’em, reeling in an estimated 3,500 of the 10,000 available in the first half of the scheduled four-month season, forcing state managers to shut it down to try and conserve the remaining quota for upcoming summers.

WITH SPRING CHINOOK FISHING A BUST THIS YEAR, RICK ITAMI (LEFT) TOOK A GUIDED TRIP FOR LAKE ROOSEVELT STURGEON. HIS MAY HAVE BEEN THE SHORTEST AT 51 INCHES FORK LENGTH, BUT THE OPPORTUNITY PROVIDED A GREAT FISHERY CLOSE TO HIS SPOKANE HOME. (FISHING PHOTO CONTEST)

Anglers also took advantage of a new program that paid them $10 apiece for the tooth-filled noggins of northern pike caught on Lake Roosevelt, turning in nearly 1,100 and earning more than $10,000.

The rewards begin again Jan. 1 and through all of next year as fishery managers try to keep the unwanted invasives from getting past Grand Coulee Dam.

Downstream, the annual pikeminnow fishery ended up being an “above-average” one that removed 191,000 of the salmon- and steelhead-smolt-eating native fish, earning one participant $83,000 and change over the five-month season.

THE YEAR IN MOVING ON

As with every year, 2017 saw its share of retirements and passages.

Longtime Northwest wildlife biologists Craig “Foz” Foster and Woodrow “Woody” Myers of the Oregon and Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife, respectively, hung up their dart guns following careers that stretched back into the 1970s.

CRAIG FOSTER AND WOODY MYERS. (TROY RODAKOWSKI, WDFW)

Tony Floor, fishing affairs director of the Northwest Marine Trade Association and prior to that a WDFW spokesman, along with Rich Landers of the Spokane Spokesman-Review and Al Thomas of The Columbian all signed off from their regular beats.

The Bellingham Herald discontinued Doug Huddle’s column, while The Seattle Times lost the fine services of Mark Yuasa as it inexplicably decided regular fishing coverage wasn’t needed, despite only 20 percent of the state’s entire salmon fishing squad living in King County.

Finally, in the passages department, we lost Bob Heirman, a lifelong angler-conservationist who took to the cutthroat-bearing “jump over” creeks around his home near Snohomish as a young boy in the 1930s and never looked back.

And while it initially looked like Boggan’s Oasis might be gone for good after a mid-November fire destroyed the Grande Ronde Riverside restaurant, 80-plus-year-old coowner Bill Vail says he’d like to reopen in time for summer.

That’s the spirit!

And in that spirit, we’re signing off on 2017 and the year that was, and looking forward to 2018.

Merry Christmas and have a happy new year!

Puget Sound Salmon Anglers Called On To Voice Concerns Over Chinook Plan

Alarms are blaring ever louder in the Puget Sound salmon fishing world.

A proposed 10-year Chinook harvest plan revealed less than two weeks ago could be “a lot tighter noose” for sport fisheries, and state and tribal managers may try to implement it as early as this spring.

THE NEW PROPOSED PUGET SOUND CHINOOK HARVEST PLAN COULD BE “A LOT TIGHTER NOOSE” FOR ANGLERS, ACCORDING TO A SPORTFISHING ADVOCATE. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

“It will very seriously reduce the very limited opportunities we’ve had in the past few years,” warned Pat Patillo in a 17-minute segment on a Seattle-based outdoor radio show last Saturday morning.

WDFW fish bosses, already the subject of displeasure from the Fish and Wildlife Commission about the plan they’ve sent to federal overseers, may publicly talk more next month about it, but Patillo is not shooting from the hip.

He’s a retired salmon policy advisor for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, where he worked for over three decades, and is now a sportfishing advisor to the agency.

After the resource management plan for Puget Sound Chinook emerged from confidential, federal-judge-mediated negotiations between WDFW and area treaty tribes, he ran this year’s run forecasts through it to get a feel for what it might portend in the near term, as expectations aren’t too bright.

Speaking on 710 ESPN Seattle’s The Outdoor Line, Patillo explained that fishing impacts on Stillaguamish wild Chinook in, essentially, Puget Sound would be halved.

But he said that even more constraining might be a new limit on that river’s mass marked fin-clipped hatchery kings.

That’s because with the basin’s Chinook being federally listed, mass-marking has provided an option for anglers to release wild kings so they can continue on the way to the gravel while culling out generally abundant production fish missing their adipose fins.

That approach could face significant challenges under the new plan.

“With that limit on hatchery fish, it effectively eliminates selective fishing as a management tool for providing opportunity to catch all Puget Sound hatchery Chinook,” Patillo told hosts of Tom Nelson and Rob Endsley.

In danger, northern summer king and winter blackmouth fisheries.

“These fish, hatchery fish and wild fish, are mixed with all the others in Puget Sound,” Patillo explained. “So if you’ve got a constraint on your hatchery fish that are mass-marked — you can’t tell a mass-marked Stilly fish from a Green River fish, for example — so you’re, what’s the term? You pick it.”

Washington managers are screwed because many Stillaguamish Chinook get picked off in fisheries to the north, in southeast Alaska and along the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Puget Sound is the only place they have any power to reduce impacts on the stock to try and rebuild it, though there are doubts that that’s possible.

In the meanwhile, anglers face a very bitter pill.

Patillo estimated that even if we’d had a total closure of Puget Sound sportfishing in 2017, it would have yielded all of “10 or 11” more wild Stillaguamish Chinook on the gravel.

Nelson, who labeled the overall approach “a harvest solution to a habitat problem,” urged listeners to contact Director Jim Unsworth and the Fish and Wildlife commission with their concerns.

Patillo echoed that, and pointing to Stilly kings, summarized an argument to make — that the plan’s constraints go “beyond the level necessary to enable rebuilding … and will not provide fishing opportunity for surplus hatchery Chinook salmon throughout Puget Sound or other healthy salmon like pink salmon, coho salmon — you’re not going to have those fisheries.”

As it stands, the plan will be reviewed by the National Marine Fisheries Service for compliance with ESA and it may be approved in early 2019 for 2019-20 to 2028-29 fisheries.

Boggan’s Owners Hope To Rebuild After Fire Burns Grande Ronde Icon

The owners of an iconic restaurant along the fish-rich Grande Ronde River hope to rebuild after fire gutted their establishment last month.

Bill Vail says he and his wife Farrel are awaiting word back from their insurance company and will look at that with an eye towards what it would take to get the milkshake machine and grill going again at Boggan’s Oasis.

“That’s still our plans,” he said late last week.

BOGGAN’S OASIS BURNS ON THE NIGHT OF NOVEMBER 18. (JENNIFER BRISTOL)

The Vails have owned the restaurant at the intersection of Washington’s Ronde and Highway 129 since 1983 but witnessed it burn to the ground on the evening of Nov. 18.

Bill says that the fire was too hot to make a determination about what caused it.

“Our large grill totally melted,” he said.

But what has since burned just as bright, and for far longer, has been the outpouring of support for the Vails and Boggan’s. A Go Fund Me account for the 80-plus-year-olds had raised over $3,600 as of last week.

“It’s left us so we could hardly talk on occasion,” said Bill. “It’s come from all across the United States and even Europe. That’s one of the reasons we want to rebuild.”

 

FROM THE ASHES OF NOVEMBER’S FIRE, THE OWNERS OF BOGGAN’S ARE CONSIDERING REBUILDING. (JENNIFER BRISTOL)

In the meanwhile, the lights are on in the cabins, though you’ll want bring your own grub — “We can still put them up, but we can’t feed them at this time,” Bill said — and the shuttle service is still operating.

As for the steelheading, well, let’s just say the Ronde looks a lot better than it did for much of last steelhead season.

“The water is absolutely beautiful,” Bill said last Friday morning. He reported some floating ice, but otherwise it was “very, very fishable.”