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Re-Introducing Chinook To Okanogan Basin; Another Proposal For An ESA ‘Experimental’ Designation
Posted on Friday, July 22, 2011 (PST)

NOAA Fisheries on Tuesday published in the Federal Register a proposal to allow the reintroduction of upper Columbia spring chinook salmon in the Okanogan River basin in north-central Washington as an experimental population under Endangered Species Act regulations.


The advance notice of proposed rulemaking outlines the agency's initial analysis of the designation and asks for public comment. The notice can be found at:


A much wider-ranging stock of upper Columbia spring chinook samon was listed for protection under the ESA in 1999.


The endangered upper Columbia “evolutionary significant unit” includes all naturally spawned populations of spring chinook salmon in all river reaches accessible to spring chinook salmon in Columbia River tributaries upstream of Rock Island Dam and downstream of Chief Joseph Dam in Washington, excluding the Okanogan. Those tributaries include the Wenatchee, Entiat and Methow rivers.


The experimental designation includes the product of six artificial propagation programs: the Twisp River, Chewuch River, Methow Composite, Winthrop NFH, Chiwawa River, and White River spring chinook hatchery programs.


The Okanogan is outside the upper Columbia spring chinook ESU’s current range, although the species was found there historically. The Okanogan population was extirpated in the 1930s because of overfishing, hydropower development and habitat degradation.


It is believed that reestablishment of spring chinook salmon in the Okanogan River basin could aid recovery of the ESU by increasing abundance, by improving spatial structure, and by reducing the risk of extinction to the ESU as a whole, the notice says.


The exploration of an experimental designation was prompted by a 2010 request from Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, who have long been involved in habitat restoration in the Okanogan basin and elsewhere as part of regionwide salmon recovery efforts. Upper Columbia steelhead, which do frequent the Okanogan, are also listed under the ESA.


“During our analysis of the CTCR’s ESA 10(j) authorization request, we will consider the most appropriate source of fish to establish an experimental population. It is likely that this source would be excess hatchery-reared chinook salmon from the Methow Composite program,” the June 19 Federal Registry notice says. “These fish are from the neighboring river basin and have evolved in an environment similar to that of the Okanogan Basin. They are likely to be the most similar genetically to the extirpated Okanogan spring-run chinook salmon population.


“For the past several years, enough adult salmon from this hatchery program have returned to the Methow Basin that excess eggs and sperm are available to begin raising fish for reintroduction into the Okanogan Basin,” the notice says.


The notice notes that “In recent years, there have been numerous habitat improvement projects completed in the U.S. and Canadian portions of the Okanogan River and its tributaries.


“The CTCR’s 10(j) authorization request includes information on several of these projects. We will consider the information in the request and other information available to determine if there is suitable habitat in the Okanogan Basin for natural reproduction of spring-run chinook salmon.


“Although any reintroduction effort is likely to require supplementation with hatchery-origin fish for several years, we will consider the likelihood that a population of spring-run chinook salmon could become established and eventually persist, without hatchery supplementation,” the notice says.


Raising those fish for release in the Okanogan at a new tribal hatchery being built just below Chief Joseph Dam is “something that was contemplated,” during NOAA Fisheries development of a biological opinion for the artificial production facility, said NOAA Fisheries’ Eric Murray.


Such decisions would be made in the future through processes aimed at developing a final proposal.


“We’d like to get this done within the next two years,” Murray said.


The experimental population designation would apply only to salmon found in the experimental population area: the Okanogan River basin and some portion of the Columbia River, possibly from just upstream of the Methow River up to Chief Joseph Dam. The Okanagan, which originates in British Columbia, empties into the Columbia about halfway between the Methow confluence and Chief Joseph Dam in central Washington. Upstream fish passage is blocked at Chief Joseph.


Reintroduction of upper Columbia spring chinook into the Okanogan basin has significant benefits both to the species and the local community, according to NOAA Fisheries. It's identified as a recovery action in the agency's Upper Columbia River Recovery Plan. A rebuilt Okanagan population could benefit long-term recovery of this species.


See the Fisheries Northwest Region’s Okanogan ESA Section 10(j) web page for more information”


NOAA Fisheries on May 18 proposed designating a population of hatchery-raised steelhead and salmon in central Oregon’s Deschutes River as “experimental,” which would provide legal protection to anyone who harmed the fish while otherwise acting lawfully. Comments on that proposal, the first such designation for any introduced run of salmon, were due this week.


Fish passage to the upper Deschutes has, for the most part, been blocked since the Pelton Round Butte project of three dams located west of Madras, Ore., were built in the 1950s and 1960s. With a newly built fish collection and transportation facility in place since late 2009, hatchery steelhead and chinook are being outplanted upriver in hopes of kindling naturally spawning populations.


“It is a way of expanding the range of a listed species without causing problems for those finding themselves in the area,” NOAA Fisheries Brian Gorman said. “Eventually, the idea is that they become a part of the listed population” and ultimately contribute to recovery of the species.


Decisions on experimental designations are keyed to genetic relations, and historic evidence of fish occupying the areas where fish are being introduced, Gorman said.


The 10(j) strategy has been a popular one this summer. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June launched ESA rule-making to restore a “non-essential experimental” population of bull trout in northwest Oregon’s Clackamas River. While it is illegal to deliberately “take” (kill or harm) any listed species, this special classification under the act provides a less restrictive level of protection and precludes anyone who accidentally kills or harms the listed species from being in violation of the law, the USFWS said.


Starting this summer, bull trout of different life stages are being reintroduced into historic bull trout habitat in the upper Clackamas River above the confluence with the Collawash River, within the Mt. Hood National Forest. Donor stock comes from a healthy bull trout population in the Metolius River in central Oregon. The Clackamas pours into the Willamette River, a tributary to the Columbia, at Portland.


Bull trout have been extirpated from four subbasins in the Willamette River basin, including the Clackamas River. Once widely distributed in the Clackamas, the last known bull trout was documented there in 1963.


“Any population authorized by the Secretary to be an experimental population shall be treated as if it were a threatened species (for the purposes of ESA section 7, nonessential experimental populations are treated as proposed for listing),” the notice says. That means NOAA Fisheries would have to draft protective regulations to go along with the proposed Okanogan designation, but they are likely to be less restrictive than those in place for the populations now included in the upper Columbia spring chinook ESU, Murray said.


The advance notice of proposed rulemaking for the Okanogan reintroduction identifies policy and technical issues for consideration and evaluation, and solicits comments regarding them. Comments and information regarding the designation process may be sent to NOAA Fisheries no later than 5 p.m. Sept. 19.

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