Salmon always get the headlines, but two other beleaguered species -- Pacific lamprey and bull trout – could also benefit from the opening up of southern Washington’s White Salmon River with removal of Condit Dam.
Bull trout are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and can be found in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Eel-like Pacific lamprey historically were found high up in the Columbia-Snake river basin. They are not listed, but their numbers are greatly diminished and on a downward trend.
Both use the Columbia River. The lamprey swim from their natal streams to the Pacific Ocean and later return to freshwater to spawn. Bull trout are known to spend some time in the Columbia before returning to tributaries to spawn, but it is not known in what numbers.
The dam, owned by Pacificorp, was constructed in 1913 three miles from the White Salmon-Columbia confluence and has since been a barrier to fish migrating upstream. The entire subbasin will be reconnected with the Columbia upon dam removal, which begins this fall.
As a lead-up to Condit’s removal the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been working in recent years with the Yakama Nation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Washington Department of Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries and PacifiCorp to assess the impact that the removal of Condit Dam may have on fish populations and aquatic habitats and how species long blocked from the upper White Salmon might fit in. The USFWS has identified Pacific lamprey, bull trout and coastal cutthroat trout as the highest priority species for restoration in the WSR basin.
The initial plan is to see if spring chinook salmon, steelhead, lamprey and bull trout recolonize the White Salmon and its tributaries on their own.
“That would be the ideal, open up the habitat and let the fish do their thing,” said USFWS biologist Tim Whitesel.
“Whether and to what extent lamprey inhabit the WSR is unclear. Preliminary survey data of lamprey species in the WSR basin suggested that resident western brook lampreys (WBL) were rare above Condit Dam, while anadromous Pacific lampreys (PCL) may be locally extirpated,” according to a research report completed by researchers from the USFWS’ Columbia River Fisheries Program office in Vancouver, Wash.
“The White Salmon River mainstem below Condit Dam is occupied by both larval western brook and Pacific lampreys and, presumably, adults of both species also spawn in this reach. The removal of Condit Dam may allow for upstream movement by adults of both species within the WSR basin and lead to recolonization of Pacific lampreys in the basin above Condit Dam,” the lamprey research paper says
“I would expect we’re going to see lamprey recolonize that river pretty quickly,” said the Columbia River-Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s Bob Heinith, who has for 20 years been involved in the process that has led toward Condit’s removal and also involved in lamprey research work. Lamprey from the White Salmon delta, and like populations in the lower Klickitat River in Washington and Sandy River in Oregon, could decide to head up the White Salmon to spawn.
Like salmon, lampreys swim to the ocean as juveniles and return to freshwater to spawn. But research seems to indicate that lamprey are not quite as intent as salmon on finding their natal stream upon their return.
“Adult Pacific lampreys returning to areas in the WSR basin above the dam may be restricted by the factors limiting distribution of western brook lampreys, such as barrier waterfalls and intermittent flow conditions,” the research report says. “Recolonization of Pacific lampreys may occur then, at a minimum, in areas currently occupied by western brook lamprey (i.e., the WSR mainstem and lower reaches of some tributaries).
“However, robust adult Pacific lampreys can use their sucker mouths to climb natural barriers that restrict movement of other fishes (Kostow 2002). For example, adult Pacific lampreys routinely pass Willamette Falls on the Willamette River,” the report says.
“The climbing ability of Pacific lampreys may allow them to access regions of the WSR that are inaccessible to and not occupied by western brook lampreys. Thus, the full potential of the WSR basin to support Pacific lampreys is not known but may be greater than for western brook lampreys.”
Researchers “don’t have very much information” about how many bull trout wander the Columbia to forage and overwinter, Whitesel said. So the potential for self-recolonization is unknown. Alternatives at some point could be to restart lamprey and bull trout populations in the White Salmon with hatchery fish.
Bull trout were sighted above Condit in 1986 and 1986, but more recent surveys produced no sightings.
But there is available habitat for any bull trout that might wander upstream in the future.
“Based on available habitat with appropriate water temperature, catchment area and stream size, nine patches have now been identified as potential habitat to support bull trout in the White Salmon River subbasin,” according to “White Salmon River Bull Trout: Patches, Occupancy and Distribution,” a USFWS research report released in May. Patches are reaches that researchers have identified as having the environmental attributes that the bull trout need to do their spawning and early rearing.
Only three of those patches will be accessible to bull trout that utilize the mainstem Columbia River. The others are blocked by waterfalls that are too tall for the fish to get past.
“There’s some areas that are relatively pristine,” Whitesel said. Bull trout need cold water to survive, so they are seldom found in waters where temperatures exceed 59 to 64 degrees F. They also require stable stream channels, clean spawning and rearing gravel, complex and diverse cover, and unblocked migratory corridors, according to the USFWS.
The White Salmon flows down from the south side of the 12,277-foot-tall Mount Adams and drains into the Columbia River at river mile 1679. Many of the upper tributaries of the White Salmon River are high gradient seasonal streams created by snow and glacial run off. Relatively low gradient tributaries such as Trout Lake Creek enter the mainstem from the west.