NOAA’s Fisheries Service this week proposed designating a population of hatchery-raised steelhead salmon in Oregon’s Deschutes River as “experimental,” which would provide legal protection to anyone who harmed the fish while otherwise acting lawfully.
The agency is seeking public comment on the proposal, the first such designation for any introduced run of salmon.
The reintroduction of the juvenile fish to the upper Deschutes River in Oregon is intended to help recover Middle Columbia steelhead salmon, which since 1999 have been listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act throughout their 35,000-square-mile historical range. It has been more than 40 years since they have been found in their historic habitat in the upper Deschutes River.
The ESA’s Section 10J allows release of an experimental population of an ESA-listed species outside the current range of that species, if that release will help conserve the species. NOAA Fisheries proposes to designate an experimental population that is geographically separate from the non-experimental ESA-listed middle Columbia River steelhead population, because of dams that have blocked access to the area where the fish are being reintroduced.
“This special designation will allow ample time for local landowners and municipalities to work with NOAA, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and watershed councils to develop solid conservation measures for these fish that support recovery of the overall larger population of Middle Columbia steelhead,” said Will Stelle, head of the NOAA Fisheries Service’s Northwest regional office in Seattle. “The great advantage is that well intended conservation efforts won’t risk running afoul of the normal ‘take’ restrictions of the Endangered Species Act.”
The “experimental” designation, which is described in section 10(j), would remain in effect for 12 years after the first adult steelhead when returning to spawn is trapped and trucked upstream for release above Round Butte Dam near Madras. That could likely occur at soon as 2012.
The designation leaves the upper Deschutes steelhead off limits to anglers. The fish are specially marked before their release, but not with a clipped adipose as are most hatchery produced salmon and steelhead. Fishers are only allowed to keep fish with a clipped adipose fin because many of the unclipped fish are wild, protected stocks.
“If you catch a steelhead (in the upper Deschutes system) you have to put them back,” said NOAA Fisheries Scott Carlon.
After the period expires, the “experimental” designation would end, and the regulations that apply to Middle Columbia steelhead would also extend to this population. A public notice would be issued before the expiration date.
During the 12 years, the status of the population would be considered “proposed for listing” under the Endangered Species Act.
The juvenile steelhead, reared at the nearby Round Butte Hatchery, are being released in the upper Deschutes River above the Round Butte Dam in central Oregon, in parts of Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties. Steelhead from the Round Butte Hatchery have the best chance to adapt to conditions in the upper Deschutes River and its tributaries, NOAA Fisheries says. During the 12 years, three generations of steelhead are expected to pass over the Round Butte Dam.
Reintroduction of the hatchery-reared fish is part of a broader recovery effort by NOAA, federal and state agencies and other partners. This reintroduction is a condition of a new federal hydropower license for the Pelton Round Butte hydroelectric project on the Deschutes River.
Portland General Electric Co. and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon are the licensees for that project. Hatchery-raised fish are often used to rebuild wild stocks that have been affected by hydroelectric projects.
The middle Columbia steelhead “designated population segment” is one of 11 listed Pacific Coast steelhead stocks. Before hydroelectric and irrigation development, steelhead were in the Deschutes River up to Big Falls (river mile 132), Whychus Creek (a Deschutes River tributary 15 above Pelton Round Butte), and the Crooked River watershed. Within the Crooked River watershed, steelhead were documented in McKay, Ochoco (below Ochoco Dam), Horseheaven, Newsome, Drake, Twelvemile and Beaver Creeks and the North Fork Crooked River.
The completion of Ochoco Dam east of Prineville in 1920 blocked steelhead access into most of the Ochoco Creek watershed. In 1961, Bowman Dam was completed on the Crooked River at RM 70, about 20 miles southeast of Prineville, which precluded fish passage into the upper Crooked River watershed.
On the Deschutes River, the Pelton and Reregulating Dams (RM 103 and RM 100, respectively) were completed in 1958. Even though these dams had fish passage, steelhead numbers in the upper Deschutes River basin had substantially declined by that time. The upper Deschutes and its two primary tributaries, the Crooked and Metolius rivers, come together just above Round Butte Dam.
Downstream passage for juvenile fish was enabled in late 2009 with the start of operations of the newly installed 273-foot-tall floating fish collection facility and underwater tower at Round Butte. Young fish are collected there and hauled around the dams for release in the lower Deschutes River, which eventually tumbles into the Columbia. The $108 million facility was paid for by the dams’ co-owners, PGE and the Warm Springs Tribes.
The reintroduction area above Round Butte is being geographically limited in the Crooked River watershed to the mainstem Crooked River below Bowman Dam, Ochoco Creek below Ochoco Dam and McKay Creek; in the Deschutes River watershed to the mainstem Deschutes River below Big Falls (RM 132) and Whychus Creek; and the Metolius River watershed (steelhead are not being released in the Metolius River, but could move into this watershed voluntarily).
Releases of MCR steelhead fry began in the Whychus Creek watershed in 2007 and in the Crooked River watershed in 2008.
Steelhead fry releases totaled 275,000 in 2007, 575,000 in 2008, 832,000 in 2009 and 611,000 in 2010. ODFW, which implements the outplant program, expected 686,000 steelhead fry would be outplanted this year. The program also includes spring chinook fry outplants.
Two documents are now available for public comment:
1. A proposed rule designating Middle Columbia River steelhead as an experimental population; and
2. A draft environmental assessment for this proposed designation.
NOAA Fisheries will issue a final rule after reviewing comments. Comments must be received by July 18.
For more information see the Northwest Region website at:
The Oregon congressional delegation had urged the administration to use the 10j designation.
“The restoration efforts in the Deschutes Basin are a model for locally organized projects that benefit fish, farmers, and the local economy at the same time,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-OR, who represents central and eastern Oregon. “This unique designation will play a very helpful role in speeding along species and habitat restoration and promote the central Oregon economy and hopefully spark job creation. The administration took a responsible step in acknowledging our bipartisan request to exercise this commonsense provision of the Endangered Species Act.”
The lawmakers’ efforts were supported by the Central Oregon Cities Organization, which represents Bend, Culver, La Pine, Madras, Maupin, Metolius, Prineville, Redmond, and Sisters.
“As the Chair of the Central Oregon Cities Organization that represents the communities impacted by the reintroduction of steelhead in the Deschutes River, I am pleased that the Administration answered Rep. Walden’s call to provide the 10(j) designation,” said Redmond Mayor George Endicott, chair of the Central Oregon Cities Organization. “The designation protects central Oregon’s economy and promotes the reintroduction of steelhead while mitigating any adverse impacts on the species while the communities are able to study potential impacts and develop plans to mitigate those impacts.”