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2018 Northwest Fish And Wildlife Year In Review, Part III

As 2018 draws to a close, we’re taking our annual look back at some of the biggest fish and wildlife stories the Northwest saw during the past year.

While the fishing and hunting wasn’t all that much to write home about, boy did the critters and critter people ever make headlines!

If it wasn’t the plight of orcas and mountain caribou, it was the fangs of cougars and wolves that were in the news — along with the flight of mountain goats and pangs of grizzly bear restoration.

Then there were the changes at the helms, court battles, legislative battles and more. Earlier we posted events of the first five months of the year, and then June through September. Below we wrap up with October through December.

OCTOBER

Oregon began offering big game preference points instead of just cold, hard cash for those who help state troopers arrest or cite fish and wildlife poachers. The new option in the Turn In a Poacher program awards five points for cases involving bighorns, mountain goats, moose and wolves; four for elk, deer, antelope, mountain lions and bears. While the points all have to go to either elk, buck, antlerless deer, pronghorn or spring black bear series hunts, it significantly raises the odds of being drawn for coveted controlled permits.

OSP SENIOR TROOPER DARIN BEAN POSES WITH THE HEADS OF THREE TROPHY BUCKS POACHED IN THE GREATER SILVER LAKE AREA. (OSP)

The lowest catch station recorded the highest haul when the Columbia-Snake 2018 pikeminnow sport-reward program wrapped up this fall. “It is the first time in the Pikeminnow Program’s 28-year history that the Cathlamet station has been the number one location,” noted Eric Winther, who heads up the state-federal effort aimed at reducing predation on salmonid smolts. With 25,135 turned in there, Cathlamet accounted for 14 percent of the overall catch of 180,309 pikeminnow this year. Boyer Park produced the second most, 22,950, while usual hot spot The Dalles was third with 22,461, less than half of 2017’s tally.

Using DNA from northern pike, USFS researcher Dr. Kellie Carim turned the widespread assumption about where the fish that have invaded Washington came from on its head. “The history we’ve told ourselves, the simplest explanation, is that the fish are flowing downstream from Western Montana,” Carim told us in early fall. “However, what the genetic analysis says is that those in Lake Roosevelt and the Pend Oreille River are closely related to those in the Couer d’Alene drainage.” In other words, a bucket biologist or biologists drove them between the watersheds. Also on the invasive species front, earlier in the year, scientists began to suspect that Sooke Harbor was not the source of the European green crabs showing up in Puget Sound waters but from somewhere on the Northwest’s outer coast.

SPECIALISTS FROM WASHINGTON SEA GRANT AND THE MAKAH TRIBE CONSIDER WHERE TO SET TRAPS IN AN ESTUARY FOR EUROPEAN GREEN CRABS. (WSG)

Oregon and Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commissions were urged not to roll back the Columbia River salmon reforms by no less than the former governor who got the ball rolling. “There’s absolutely no reason to change right now, it makes no sense,” said Oregon’s John Kitzhaber in one of several short videos that came out ahead of indepth reviews for the citizen panels.

IN A NEW VIDEO, FORMER GOVERNOR JOHN KITZHABER URGES VIEWERS TO MAINTAIN THE COLUMBIA RIVER SALMON REFORMS.

With salvaging roadkilled deer and elk in Oregon set to begin Jan. 1, 2019, the Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted regulations for how the program will work. It’s similar to Washington’s, except that antlers and heads must be turned in to any ODFW office (here are addresses and phone numbers of the two dozen across the state) within five business days and Columbian whitetail deer may be salvaged, but only in Douglas County, where the species was declared recovered in 2003.

Idaho Fish and Game Commissioner Blake Fischer resigned after a distasteful photo of him with a dead “family of baboons” surfaced following an African safari with his wife. Fischer initially defended his actions, telling the Idaho Statesman, “I didn’t do anything illegal. I didn’t do anything unethical. I didn’t do anything immoral.” In accepting Fischer’s requested resignation, Gov. Butch Otter stated, “Every member of my administration is expected to exercise good judgment. Commissioner Fischer did not.”

FORMER IDAHO FISH AND GAME COMMISSIONER BLAKE FISCHER OF MERIDIAN RESIGNED AFTER GOVERNOR BUTCH OTTER REQUESTED HE DO SO. (IDFG)

This year’s return of coho to the Columbia River was woeful at best, but there was a glimmer of good news when the Nez Perce announced that the first adult in more than 50 years returned to Northeast Oregon, thanks to a joint tribal-ODFW release of half a million smolts in March 2017. At least 125 had arrived at a weir on the Lostine River as of earlier this month, and tribal fisheries manager Becky Johnson estimated there were 800 more still on their way at that point.

FEMALE COHO TRAPPED AT THE LOSTINE RIVER WEIR ON OCTOBER 26, 2018 — THE FIRST SINCE 1966. (NEZ PERCE TRIBE)

With small, 2- to 3-inch razor clams dominating the population in Clatsop County’s sands, Oregon shellfish managers with support from the public decided to postpone harvesting any until this coming March, in hopes they would be larger by then. On the north side of the Columbia River, Washington’s Long Beach will only see a limited opener this season due to low salinity levels in winter 2017 that affected survival and led to a higher concentration of small clams.

OREGON SHELLFISH MANAGERS SAY ITS NORTHERN RAZOR CLAM POPULATION IS ON THE SMALL SIDE AND SEASON WAS POSTPONED TILL MARCH. (ODFW)

WDFW’s new Director Kelly Susewind hit the highway, the airwaves and the interweb to flesh out his thinking on hot-button fish and wildlife issues, set the tone for what his priorities are going forward, and listen to the needs of sportsmen and Washington residents. He hosted half a dozen meetings across the state, appeared on TVW’s Inside Olympia and did a webinar as the agency tried to build support for its $67 million ask of the legislature in 2019.

It wasn’t just small clams on the Oregon Coast sparking concerns — low early returns and catches of fall Chinook led ODFW to restrict fishing from the Necanicum to the Siuslaw, closing all the rivers above tidewater and reducing limits in the bays from three to one for the season. When subsequent surveys began to show more fish arriving on the spawning grounds, sections of the lower Siletz then Alsea and Yaquina Rivers were reopened, but further south, it wasn’t until late November before ODFW was able to lift gear restrictions on the low-flowing Chetco and Winchuck Rivers.

NOVEMBER

Western Washington tribes launched an ambitious, coordinated, long-term effort to identify and restore key salmon habitats as well as gauge land-use decisions in the region. The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission’s Tribal Habitat Strategy was described by chair Lorraine Loomis as an “effort … based on what we know is actually needed to achieve ecosystem health, not what we think is possible to achieve given current habitat conditions.”

THE COVER OF THE NORTHWEST INDIAN FISHERIES COMMISSION’S NEW “TRIBAL HABITAT STRATEGY” REPORT SHOWS A KITSAP COUNTY CULVERT ON CARPENTER CREEK THAT HAS SINCE BEEN REMOVED, IMPROVING FISH PASSAGE AND ESTUARY FUNCTION. (NWIFC)

Cattle depredations that seemed like they’d never end in Northeast Washington led to essentially three different lethal wolf removal operations ongoing at once, two by WDFW targeting all the remaining OPT wolves and one Smackout Pack member, and one by a producer for any Togo wolves in their private pastures. By year-end at least four wolves had been killed by state shooters in hopes of reducing livestock attacks, and the Capital Press reported at least 31 calves and cows had been confirmed to have been either killed or injured by wolves in 2018, “more than double any previous year.”

LIFE COULD BE WORSE — YOU COULD GROW A BUCK ON YOUR BUTT … OR AT LEAST HAVE A TRAIL CAMERA RECORD SOMETHING ALONG THOSE LINES. THIS UNUSUAL ALIGNMENT WAS RECORDED AT A WASHINGTON WILDLIFE AREA IN THE NORTHEAST CORNER OF THE STATE DURING THE FALL RUT. (WDFW)

Significantly increasing Chinook abundance to help out starving orcas was among the key recommendations Washington’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force voted to forward to Governor Jay Inslee after months of discussion and public comment. Members also urged suspending southern resident killer whale watching for all fleets — commercial, recreational, kayak, rubber dingy, etc., etc., etc. — for the next three to five years. The recommendations were generally supported by sportfishing reps who took part in the task force’s work. “Production needs to be ramped up immediately, and follow the recovery/ESA sidebars in the recommendations,” said Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, who also expressed concern about “organizations who will file lawsuits to fight increased production no matter how thoughtfully done and no matter how dire the need.”

A PAIR OF SOUTHERN RESIDENT KILLER WHALES SWIM IN INLAND WATERS EARLIER THIS MONTH. (KATY FOSTER/NOAA FISHERIES)

IDFG Director Virgil Moore announced that he was retiring in January after eight years at the helm of Idaho fish and wildlife management and a four-decade-long career in the field, including a year as ODFW’s director. “Working together, Fish and Game and our wildlife resources are in excellent shape and ready to be handed off to new leadership,” he said in a press release. Fellow Fish and Game honcho Ed Schriever was named as Moore’s replacement.

Federal researchers found that one top way to recover Chinook in Puget Sound streams is to restore side channels. Providing space for the young ESA-listed fish to grow as well as shelter from flood flows adds complexity to river systems, increasing its potential value as habitat. The work, some of which was done on the Cedar River, could help answer where and how to get the best bang for restoration dollars. In a related story, for the first time since the project wrapped up in 2014, a pair of kings chose to spawn in a portion of a Seattle stream that had been engineered for salmon to dig redds. “That’s a vote of confidence!” said a utility district biologist.

A SEATTLE PUBLIC UTILITY IMAGE SHOWS A PAIR OF CHINOOK SALMON ON THE GRAVEL OF LOWER THORNTON CREEK, EAST OF NORTHGATE MALL. (SPU)

With the threat of a federal lawsuit hanging over their heads, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission voted in mid-November to suspend steelhead season in early December. IDFG’s permit to hold the fishery had expired nearly 10 years ago and other priorities had kept NMFS from issuing a new one, providing an opening for yet another low-hanging-fruit lawsuit from the usual suspects. “The loss of that opportunity, even temporarily, due to a lawsuit and unprocessed permit is truly regrettable,” said Virgil Moore in a letter to Idaho steelheaders. The pending closure didn’t affect Washington fishermen angling the shared Snake, and it led one of the six litigant groups to subsequently back out, saying its goal of spurring the feds into action had been achieved. But on the eve of the shutdown, an agreement was reached between a newly formed group of anglers and towns, Idaho River Community Alliance, IDFG and the other five parties. It kept fishing open, closed stretches of the South Fork Clearwater and Salmon, and included voluntary measures.

A LAST-MINUTE AGREEMENT KEPT STEELHEADING OPEN ON THE NORTH FORK CLEARWATER AND OTHER IDAHO STREAMS FOLLOWING A THREATENED FEDERAL LAWSUIT OVER A LACK OF A FISHERIES PERMIT. (YO-ZURI PHOTO CONTEST)

The federal Fourth National Climate Assessment, released over Thanksgiving weekend, painted a rough go of it for fish, shellfish and wildlife in the Northwest. It projected that Washington salmon habitat will be reduced by 22 percent under a scenario that includes continued high emissions of greenhouse gases, razor clamming would decline “due to cumulative effects of ocean acidification, harmful algal blooms, higher temperatures, and habitat degradation,” and that more management to ensure sufficient waterfowl habitat would be needed. The report, required by Congress, did say deer and elk may actually thrive due to less winterkill and improving habitat because of increased wildfires, but could also be impacted by “increases in disease and disease-carrying insects and pests.”

ODFW launched its new electronic license program, so easy that even hook-and-bullet magazine editors can (eventually) figure it out. Essentially, the app allows sportsmen to carry an e-version of their fishing and hunting licenses on their phones, etc., as well as tag critters and fill in punch cards with an app that works even offline in Oregon’s remote canyons.

In what would also be a continuing news story in the year’s final month, ODFW received federal permission to lethally remove as many as 93 California sea lions annually at Willamette Falls and in the lower Clackamas. “This is good news for the native runs of salmon and steelhead in the Willamette River,” said ODFW’s Dr. Shaun Clements, whose agency had estimated that if nothing were done, there was a 90 percent chance one of the watershed’s wild winter steelhead runs would go extinct. “We did put several years’ effort into non-lethal deterrence, none of which worked. The unfortunate reality is that, if we want to prevent extinction of the steelhead and Chinook, we will have to lethally remove sea lions at this location,” he said in a press release.

And near the end of the month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 196 to 180 to fully delist gray wolves in the Lower 48. But that was as far as the Manage our Wolves Act, co-sponsored by two Eastern Washington Republicans, was going to get, as at the end of the year it went nowhere in the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works and the incoming chair of the House Natural Resources Committee flatly told a reporter that the panel won’t be moving any delisting legislation while he is in charge over the next two years. Meanwhile, WDFW and the University of Washington began year three of predator-prey research across the northern tier of Eastern Washington.

A TRAIL CAMERA CAPTURED WHAT’S BELIEVED TO BE A SMACKOUT PACK YEARLING PACKING FAWN QUARTERS BACK TO A DEN IN NORTHEAST WASHINGTON. (JEFF FLOOD)

DECEMBER

Poor fishing up and down the West Coast in recent years was among the factors that forced the owners of Ollie Damon’s reel repair shop in Portland to close up for good this month, ending the run of a famed name that first opened for business in the late 1940s. “It’s sad for us but we can’t work forever,” said Rich and Susan Basch who bought the shop in the 1990s and used to service as many as 5,000 to 6,000 reels annually, and who said that they’ll miss their customers “immensely” as they also retire.

PORTLAND’S OLLIE DAMON’S CLOSEd ITS DOORS DEC. 29, MARKING THE END OF AN ERA. (OLLIE DAMON’S)

We’ll know a lot more about 2019 salmon expectations later in winter, but the year’s first forecasts came out in early December, with Columbia River managers expecting an overall run of 157,500 springers, 35,900 summer kings, and 99,300 of the red salmon, all below 10-year averages but no surprise given recent ocean conditions. The outlook for upriver brights is similar to 2018, with tule Chinook below the 10-year average, but with spring’s offshore survey finding good numbers of young coho in the ocean and a strong jack return to the river this fall, there is some potential good news for silver slayers.

The poaching of one of Oregon’s rare moose north of Enterprise in November led to a handsome reward offer of not only $7,500 at last check but a guided elk hunt on the nearby Krebs Ranch, a $3,500 value in itself. “The poaching of a moose is a tragic thing,” said Jim Akenson of the Oregon Hunters Association, chapters of which stepped up to build the reward fund. “Especially because our moose population is low – fewer than 70 in Oregon.” This is at least the second moose poached in Northeast Oregon in recent years. Thadd J. Nelson was charged in early 2015 with unlawfully killing one in mid-2014. He was later killed by robbers.

OREGON’S MOOSE POPULATION WAS LAST ESTIMATED AT 75 OR SO. (PAT MATTHEWS, ODFW)

Washington Governor Jay Inslee touted an “unprecedented investment” of $1.1 billion to recover orcas and their key feedstock — Chinook — in his proposed 2019-21 budget. It includes $12 million for WDFW to maximize hatchery production to rear and release an additional 18.6 million salmon smolts, a whopping $205 million boost for DOT to improve fish passage beneath state roads, and $75.7 million to improve the state’s hatcheries (hopefully testing generators more frequently!). Inslee’s budget, which must still be passed by lawmakers, also includes the fee increase but $15 million WDFW asked for for conservation and habitat work was pared down to just $1.3 million for the former.

With the significance of Chinook for orcas in the spotlight of course a mid-December windstorm would knock out power to a state hatchery, and when the backup generator failed to immediately kick in, around 6 million fall and spring fry died. That angered fishermen and killer whale advocates alike, and led to a rare statement by a WDFW director, Kelly Susewind on the “painful loss.” As an outside investigation is launched into what exactly what went wrong, up to 2.75 million fish from a mix of state, tribal and tech college hatcheries were identified as possible replacements, pending buy-in from several more tribes.

SALMON INCUBATION TRAYS AT MINTER CREEK HATCHERY. (WDFW)

Federal, state and tribal officials agreed to a three-year trial to see if increasing spill down the Columbia and Snake Rivers can “significantly boost” outmigrating salmon and steelhead smolt numbers. The agreement came after early in the year U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon ordered spill to occur and Eastern Washington House of Representatives members tried to kill it. Testing begins this coming April — “It can’t happen soon enough,” said NSIA’s Hamilton.

WDFW’S FIRST KARELIAN BEAR DOG, MISHKA, PASSED AWAY LATE IN THE YEAR. HANDLER “BRUCE (RICHARDS) SAID OF MISHKA THAT WHAT HE ACCOMPLISHED IN ONE YEAR WAS AKIN TO WHAT ONE WILDLIFE OFFICER COULD ACCOMPLISH IN A LIFETIME OF WORK,” BEAR SMART WA POSTED ON INSTAGRAM. THE DUO HAD A LONG CAREER OF CHASING BEARS AND HELPING ON POACHING CASES IN GREATER PUGETROPOLIS. ALSO IN 2018, ANOTHER WDFW KBD DOG, CASH, DIED FOLLOWING A BATTLE AGAINST PROSTRATE CANCER. (WDFW)

And finally, and in probably the best news of the whole damn year — which is why we saved it to last, but also because it happened so late in 2018 — the Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act was signed into law by President Trump after zipping through the Senate and House this month. With bipartisan leadership from Northwest lawmakers and support from the DFWs, tribes and fishing community among others, the bill essentially provides up to five one-year permits to kill as many as 920 California sea lions and 249 Steller sea lions in portions of the Columbia River and its salmon-bearing tributaries. Not that that many likely will be taken out, but this should FINALLY help address too many pinnipeds taking too big a bite out of ESA-listed stocks and help keep one of their new favorite targets, sturgeon, from ending up on the list too.

And with that, I’m calling it a year on this three-part year in review — read the first chunk, covering January through May here, and the second, June through September, here.

Take care, and happy new year!

AW
NWS

Nez Perce Optimistic About Snake Basin Coho Reintroductions

By Rick Itami

With salmon and steelhead runs across the Northwest experiencing low run counts in most river systems, anglers these days glom on to any visage of hope they can find.

For us Inland Empire anglers, the Nez Perce Tribe is providing such hope through their quiet efforts to reintroduce coho salmon to the Clearwater River and Grande Ronde River basins.

The Clearwater River Basin

History tells us that the once plentiful Clearwater River coho started declining in the 1800s because of habitat degradation. In 1927, the Washington Water Power Company (now Avista Corp.) constructed the Lewiston Dam to produce electricity and aid in flood control.

The original Lewiston Dam had a fish ladder, but it accommodated only steelhead resulting in the extirpation of Clearwater Chinook salmon and any remaining vestiges of a coho run. A second fish ladder was installed in the early 1950s that seemed to help the Chinook salmon run somewhat, but it was too late for the coho.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game tried to re-establish coho in the Clearwater River Basin beginning in 1962. But that effort was discontinued after only 31 coho were counted at Lewiston Dam in 1969. The Lewiston Dam was finally taken out in 1973 after the construction of Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River caused a reservoir pool that backed up into the lower Clearwater River, rendering the Lewiston Dam ineffective. By 1985, coho salmon in Idaho were determined to be extinct.

The Nez Perce Tribe began working diligently to reintroduce coho salmon to the Clearwater River in 1995. Becky Johnson, Production Division Director for the Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resource Management, is a key manager in the effort to reintroduce coho salmon to the Clearwater River Basin. Johnson provided the following information about how the Tribe carried out the project.

NOAA’s Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund and the Mitchell Act Program provided the Nez Perce Tribe with more than $5 million since 2000 for the project. The Clearwater River Basin Coho Restoration Project also got a jump-start when the Tribe was allowed to acquire surplus coho eggs from the Lower Columbia River as part of an agreement between Northwest tribes and state and federal agencies resulting from U. S. v. Oregon.

After initial supplementation efforts using Lower Columbia River coho eggs were successful, returning adult coho are now collected at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery, Kooskia National Fish Hatchery and Lapwai Creek. Over the years, the tribal program has grown and now releases 830,000 to 1.1 million smolts annually. Coho smolts are released each spring into Clear Creek and Lapwai Creek, both tributaries of the Clearwater River. In 2014, about 90 percent of the adult coho returning to Lapwai Creek were allowed to spawn naturally.

The final 2014 count of coho salmon over Lower Granite Dam — the last dam the fish have to negotiate before reaching the mouth of the Clearwater River in Lewiston, Idaho — was 18,048 fish. Mike Bisbee, Jr., Tribal Project Manager for the Clearwater Basin Coho Reintroduction Program says the 2014 adult return far-exceeded the project goal of 14,000 returning adults and gave hope for the future of the run.

To the Nez Perce Department of Fisheries Management, the success of the coho reintroduction program helps fulfill its goal of “putting fish in the rivers” to rebuild natural spawning runs and to restore harvest opportunities. This all came to fruition for the Nez Perce Tribe in 2014 and Bisbee says that he and his crew received a lot of pats on the back by Tribal members, both young and old. He and his crew were able to take dozens of excess coho out of the fish trap in Lapwai Creek and give them to Tribal members for the first time last year. In addition, many tribal members were successful harvesting coho individually. The return of the coho salmon has great significance to Tribal members as it helps bring back an important part of their cultural history.

For Clearwater River sports fishermen in Idaho, the reintroduction of coho salmon meant a totally new species to pursue. And some were wise enough to realize that this opened up an opportunity to catch a state record that would permanently put them in the record books.

Ethan Crawford of Moscow, Idaho was the first to set the Idaho record by catching a 9.4 pound, 31-inch female on October 18, 2014 — just a day after the Idaho Department of Fish and Game opened the coho season.

That record didn’t last long, however. On November 9, 2014, Steve Micek from Idaho Falls, Idaho hooked and landed an 11.8 pound coho while fishing with his son Greg. Micek said he hooked the fish on the last cast of the day, using a half-ounce silver KO Wobbler.

He wasn’t impressed with the fight, however, saying the fish “hit like a snag” and was in the net after only a few strong pulls. He attributes the lack of fight to “spawning behavior.”

STEVE MICEK AND HIS IDAHO STATE RECORD COHO, AN 11.8-POUNDER CAUGHT NOV. 8, 2014. (IDFG)

I accidently hooked and landed a nice bright female coho with firm red meat. I say accidentally because I was trolling lighted lures for steelhead early in the morning before sunrise. When the sun came up, I decided to switch to fishing shrimp under bobbers. So I started reeling up my trolling rod with the lighted lure. As soon as I speeded up the retrieve, the fish struck and I happily landed my first Idaho coho that went into the cooler with some steelhead we had caught earlier.

Since many Idaho anglers have never fished for coho salmon before, they naturally have to learn how it’s done properly. Many successful anglers cruised the Clearwater River in their boats until they observed coho salmon rolling on the surface. Then they would throw spoons or spinners like the Blue Fox, twitched jigs, or trolled plugs for them. Favorite colors were silver, chartreuse, pink, cerise and black or combinations thereof.

Toby Wyatt, owner and operator of Reel Time Fishing (208-790-2128), a successful guide service out of Clarkston, Washington says that his clients did well trolling Mag Lips 3.5 plugs in the Doctor Death colors, drifting beads, and casting spoons like the silver Little Cleo or the pink Vibrax Blue Fox spinner.

He said that the bite was never really hot and five to six coho a day was the norm. He targeted the mouths of creeks and hatcheries where coho were released and said he observed a lot of fish that simply would not bite.

Then in 2015, poor ocean conditions caused near record low runs of coho salmon. The low number of adult returns caused the Tribe to miss its broodstock needs for the year which in turn, caused hatchery releases of smolts in 2017 to be low.

According to Johnson, “Once you get into a ‘hole’ like that it can be hard to climb out unless ocean conditions really turn around and are good again.”

In the fall of 2018, Johnson estimates 1,200 to 1,400 adult coho returned to the Clearwater River basin. While this was too low a number to allow for a sports fishing season, she says Tribal staff should have enough eggs to produce the 500,000 juveniles for the Clearwater program that will be released in the spring of 2020.

The Grande Ronde River Basin

With the initial success of the reintroduction of coho salmon to the Clearwater River basin, the Nez Perce Tribe turned its attention to the Grande Ronde River basin.

On March 9, 2017, the Tribe held a ceremony to release 500,000 coho salmon smolts into the Lostine River on the Woody Wolf Ranch just east of the town of Wallowa, Oregon. According to Johnson, coho once flourished in the Grande Ronde River Basin but the fish pretty much disappeared by around 1986.

COHO SMOLTS RELEASED INTO THE LOSTINE RIVER ON THE WOODY WOLF RANCH, MARCH 9, 2017. (RICK ITAMI)

This project is co-managed by the Nez Perce Tribe and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The release was made possible by obtaining Lower Columbia River coho smolts from the Cascade Hatchery on Tanner Creek — the same hatchery from which coho smolts came from for the initial releases into the Clearwater River Basin.

According to Bruce Eddy, Manager of the Eastern Region of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the initial goal for the reintroduction is to have broodstock for 500,000 juvenile coho salmon. When asked when the Department might open a coho season for sports anglers, Eddy said that it may be as long as 10 years, depending on all the factors involved.

The Nez Perce Tribe waited expectantly for the first returning adult coho to the Lostine River weir in the fall of 2018. Then on October 26, 2018, a female coho entered the weir — the first coho salmon to return to the Lostine River since 1966.

As Johnson put it, “It goes without saying that we’re super excited to see these coho return home.”

At the time of this writing, Nez Perce staff had trapped 125 coho that were later released to spawn naturally in the Lostine River.

FEMALE COHO TRAPPED AT THE LOSTINE RIVER WEIR ON OCTOBER 26, 2018 — THE FIRST SINCE 1966. (NEZ PERCE TRIBE)

Johnson says they think about 800 coho bound for the Lostine River crossed Lower Granite Dam, based on PIT tag data.

She adds, “Coho that didn’t make it all the way to the Lostine weir likely are spawning in the Grande Ronde and Wallowa Rivers,” of which the Lostine River is a tributary.

At any rate, it appears that the target return of 500 adults was met in 2018. That’s good news, even though the overall return did not allow a sports fishing season, which wasn’t anticipated anyway.

Johnson sees poor ocean conditions as one of the biggest challenges to the reintroduction of coho salmon. As she puts it, “Warm water, low prey base — not good conditions for salmon and steelhead.”

But looking into the future, Johnson says, “I am optimistic about attaining self-sustaining runs in the Snake Basin. Coho were once abundant here and the habitat in a lot of the tributaries up here is available and vacant. Developing a stock that is able to navigate 500 to 600 miles over eight dams out to the ocean and then have the stamina to migrate home that same distance over those same dams as an adult was the challenge when we started reintroduction in the 1990s. We’ve seen great success with that from our Clearwater program. I believe the greatest challenge now is climate change and tough ocean conditions.”

We sports anglers are cheering the Nez Perce Tribe on in their efforts to restore coho salmon to the Clearwater River and Grande Ronde River basins. Having had a taste of a fishable run of coho in 2014 gives us hope for more of the same in the future for both basins.

In this day and age, when disparate groups are fighting each other over fishing rights and oftentimes driven by selfish motivation, it’s refreshing to see the Nez Perce Tribe forging ahead with substantive actions to bring coho salmon back to the Inland Northwest with little fanfare.

Just as the benevolent Nez Perce Tribe saved Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery from certain starvation in the fall of 1805, we hope they can now bring back sustainable runs of the magnificent coho salmon.

Editor’s note: Rick Itami is an angler and outdoor writer based in the Spokane area. His work has appeared in several Northwest sporting magazines, including ours.

Nez Perce Report First Coho Return To Lostine River In 4 Decades

A Nez Perce Fisheries official is reporting that the first adult coho in more than 40 years arrived on a Northeast Oregon river earlier this week.

“I think we’ll see at least a few hundred Coho this fall at our weir on the Lostine,” predicted Jim Harbeck, according to a blog post by the Allen M. and Betty Josephy Library of Western History and Culture in Joseph.

ADULT COHO ARE RETURNING TO THE LOSTINE RIVER FOR THE FIRST TIME IN FOUR DECADES, THANKS TO A JOINT STATE-TRIBAL PROJECT THAT SAW 500,000 SMOLTS RELEASED IN MARCH 2017. (CRITFC)

Half a million smolts were let loose into the Grande Ronde River tributary in March 2017 through a joint Nez Perce-Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reintroduction project.

Spokane angler Rick Itami attended that release and wrote afterwards that the species was believed to have been “pretty much gone” from the watershed by 1986.

The young coho came from ODFW’s Cascade Hatchery, the same source that was used for the tribe’s reintroduction into the Clearwater Basin, according to Itami.

This year’s smolts had an interesting journey. The Eagle Creek Fire forced their evacuation to Leaburg Hatchery on the McKenzie River before they were released into the Lostine in March.

The goal of the program is to eventually provide harvest opportunities for all fishermen and reseed coho in the Grande Ronde basin as a whole, according to the Columbia River Inter Tribal Fish Commission.

This year’s coho return up the Columbia has been below expectations, with 33,210 counted at Bonneville and 1,237 at Lower Granite on the Snake, the last dam before the Ronde.

Coho Evacuated From Wildfire-threatened Hatchery Released Into Lostine River

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE

Many of the 1.75 million juvenile fish evacuated from Cascade Hatchery in Cascade Locks after last year’s Eagle Creek Fire in the Gorge are now on their way from the Pacific Northwest’s rivers to the Columbia River and eventually, the Pacific Ocean.

HATCHERY COHO ARE RELEASED INTO NORTHEAST OREGON’S LOSTINE RIVER. (JEFF YANKE, ODFW)

The evacuation was due to the threat of debris flow when storms passed over areas hit by the Eagle Creek Fire. A debris flow could overwhelm water intake areas and harm water quality, which could have killed fish at the hatchery.

One million juvenile (< 1 year old) coho bound for the Lostine and Umatilla Rivers were evacuated to Leaburg Hatchery last September. Half of those fish were released in the Lostine River in northeast Oregon last week, a project in cooperation with the Nez Perce Tribe. The remaining 500,000 coho, destined for release in the Umatilla River in a few weeks, are now at acclimation ponds at the Pendleton acclimation site under the care of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Another 650,000 coho went to Leavenworth and Willard National Fish Hatcheries for release into the upper tributaries of the Columbia River including the Methow and Wenatchee Rivers.

An additional 132,000 spring Chinook that were evacuated last September went to Sandy Hatchery and are set for a spring release into the Bull Run River, a tributary of the Sandy River.

Once released, the coho and spring Chinook begin their downstream migration into the Columba River, reaching the Pacific Ocean weeks later. Coho will spend the next year and a half growing and maturing to adulthood in the ocean before returning to the Columbia River and its upper tributaries. Spring Chinook spend one to four years in the ocean before returning. 

Operations at Cascade Hatchery are slowly getting back to normal. The hatchery did experience some high water and runoff last fall and some sudden muddy and turbid water flows this year, but water supply has been good overall. Some fish fry are now being raised there and next year, some older fish will return to the hatchery. However, it will be some time before Cascade Hatchery is back to full production due to concerns about the stability of the Eagle Creek drainage.

ODFW intends to use Leaburg Hatchery again this summer to raise 500K juvenile coho that will be released into the Umatilla River in 2019—fish that normally would have been raised at Cascade Hatchery.

“Our ability to move these fish to Leaburg Hatchery was critical to salvaging production after the fires, and we will need to use the hatchery again while the watershed recovers from the Eagle Creek Fire,” explained Andrew Gibbs, ODFW acting east region hatchery manager.

(JEFF YANKE, ODFW)

Leaburg Hatchery had been scheduled to close on June 30, 2018 after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opted to shift its fish production to a private facility. The Oregon State Legislature recently passed a bill to fund the hatchery for one year (July 1, 2018- June 30, 2019) through a combination of General Fund dollars and Columbia River Basin Endorsement funds.

ODFW is currently working on strategies to provide funding for Leaburg Hatchery for the 2019-2021 biennium and beyond. Continued operation of Leaburg will provide additional capacity within the hatchery system to accommodate emergency fish transfers like occurred after the Eagle Creek Fire. ODFW also hopes that long term funding will allow Leaburg Hatchery to raise spring Chinook and trophy trout, creating more fishing opportunities in the Willamette Valley.