NOAA Fisheries Service will hold a public meeting Monday (Dec. 5) in Omak, Wash., to continue its discussion of whether it is appropriate to reintroduce Upper Columbia spring-run chinook salmon to the Okanogan River basin as an “experimental” population.
The meeting will be held from 6 to 10 p.m. at the Koala Street Grill, 914 Koala Ave., Omak. Leading the meeting will be officials from Okanagan County, the Colville Confederated Tribes and NOAA Fisheries.
If the proposal is advanced under Endangered Species Act regulations, the tribes would hatch and rear spring chinook salmon at its new Chief Joseph Hatchery for release as juveniles into the Okanogan, and hope they and future broods will return as adults to spawn in the river.
“We’re going out to meet with stakeholders,” NOAA Fisheries’ Eric Murray said of the ongoing effort gather information and evaluate the proposal. The agency is considering the best available information to determine if reintroduction is biologically feasible and will promote conservation of ESA-listed Upper Columbia spring chinook salmon.
Wild Upper Columbia spring chinook were listed under the ESA as endangered in 1999. NOAA Fisheries, which is charged with protecting listed salmon and steelhead stocks, in July published in the Federal Register “advance notice of a proposed rulemaking’ to allow the reintroduction of Upper Columbia spring chinook salmon in the Okanogan and its tributaries basin in north-central Washington as an experimental population under ESA regulations.
The advance notice of proposed rulemaking outlined the agency's initial analysis of the designation and asked for public comments by Sept. 19. The notice can be found at:
Little comment came in, according to Murray. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation supported the plan; one commenter decried the plan as a waste of taxpayer/electric ratepayer money. The new hatchery was largely paid for by the Bonneville Power Administration, with cost shares from the Chelan, Douglas and Grant county public utility districts.
Monday’s meeting is intended to further the discussion with the tribes, local governments and citizens and others.
Murray said the agency plans to develop a draft proposed rule for public comment in the coming months and then, hopefully by sometime next summer, complete a final rule.
The Upper Columbia spring chinook “evolutionarily significant unit,” as designated by NOAA Fisheries, 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 designation includes the product of six artificial propagation programs: the Twisp River, Chewuch River, Methow Composite, Winthrop NFH, Chiwawa River, and White River spring-run Chinook hatchery programs.
The Okanogan is outside the upper Columbia spring chinook ESU’s current range but the species was found there historically. The Okanogan population was extirpated in the 1930s because of overfishing, hydropower development and habitat degradation.
The reintroduction idea has been accepted by most, “as long as it doesn’t increase regulatory restrictions,” Murray said. In the advance notice NOAA Fisheries said any spring chinook population developed in the Okanogan basin would be considered a “nonessential” experimental population under ESA regulations.
Under the ESA’s Section 10(j), populations authorized as non-essential experimental populations do not receive the benefits of certain protections normally applicable to threatened species, according to the July notice.
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.
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, 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 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 the species, the agency says.
See the Fisheries Northwest Region’s Okanogan ESA Section 10(j) web page for more information: