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 email@example.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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And finally, for the first time Oregon and Washington wildlife managers began testing how well drones might work for counting critters.
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.
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.
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.
Fire closures also meant deer and elk hunters had to find new spots to chase bucks and bulls in the Cascades.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!