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Biologists Hope Drones Continue To Be Used To Count Lower Snake River Chinook Redds
Posted on Friday, July 27, 2012 (PST)

It’s back to the drawing board… maybe… for a plan to employ small, remote-controlled aircraft – drones -- as tools to battle the winds of the lower Hells Canyon, and, at the same time, produce accurate accounts of how many Snake River fall chinook salmon are seeding spawning grounds.

An effort last fall judged to be successful used drones with video cameras to photograph the lower Snake River as a way to identify and enumerate salmon “redds” or nests. The idea is to conduct the research in a safer manner; and do it less expensively, than has been done previously.

The work included the expenditure of some $16,000 to purchase two “hexacoptors” and one ground station, which is essentially a laptop computer that controls, with the help of GPS, the flight of the “birds.” The unmanned copters purchased for the redd surveys each weigh less than 5 pounds, including the camera, according to Phil Groves of the Idaho Power Company. They are about a foot tall and slightly more than a yard in diameter.

The hexacopters flew at a height of about 20 to 30 meters above the surface of the lower Snake River. A side-by-side test was conducted with piloted also doing surveys as has been done in the past.

Prospects for the approaching season are to some degree in limbo. The Federal Aviation Administration has told the IPC it must acquire a permit if it is to continue using the unmanned aircraft.

IPC funds the lower Snake River redd survey work and contracts for implementation of a long-running program to determine the spawning success of a fall chinook. The stock’s naturally produced element is listed under the Endangered Species Act. The Nez Perce Tribe, states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington and federal agencies are also involved in the redd surveys of the lower Snake and tributaries such as the Clearwater River in Idaho, and the Imnaha and Grande Ronde in Oregon.

Researchers that explore the mountainous Pacific Northwest were chilled in January 2011 with the crash of a helicopter carrying two Idaho Fish and Game biologists in the Kelly Creek area on the North Fork of the Clearwater River. None of the three people on board suffered life-threatening injuries. The two research biologists were trapping and radio-collaring elk, moose and wolves in the Clearwater Region.

Later that same year a helicopter carrying two Idaho Fish and Game fisheries biologists and a pilot crashed in Kamiah on the morning of Aug. 31, leaving three dead. The fatalities included Larry Barrett, 47 of Lewiston, who worked for Fish and Game since 1985, and Dani Schiff, 34 of Lewiston, who worked for Fish and Game since 1997, and pilot Perry Krinitt, 43, of Belgrade, Mont.

The biologists were on their way to count salmon redds on the nearby Selway River. Fish and Game biologists have counted redds annually since the 1950s using fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. The counts are the primary index of the status of naturally spawning salmon. Aerial counts have been the only way to count many of Idaho's remote and wilderness streams.

“We started looking at other ways to do things,” the IPC’s Groves said of a resolve among salmon managers to find ways to carry out tasks in a safer manner.

The new technique for counting and estimating shallow water redds was tested for the first time in the fall of 2011. The company employed the six-bladed hexacopters to take video twice a week during a season that stretches for about eight weeks. The survey includes 17 index sites from just below Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon Complex on the Idaho-Oregon border downstream to about Clarkston, Wash.,-Lewiston, Idaho, which is more than 100 miles away.

The returning wild Snake River fall chinook are ESA listed. Included in the mix of spawners are hatchery fish from an Idaho Power-funded hatchery program aimed at mitigating for dam impacts on fish populations, and from Nez Perce Tribe hatchery supplementation programs intended to boost returns to the spawning grounds. Most of the funding for the NPT program comes from the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power generated in the federal Columbia-Snake river hydro system and funds fish and wildlife projects aimed at mitigating for hydro impacts.

Fall chinook returns have been climbing in recent years.

The redd counts derived from studying the film was compared with counts taken the old-fashioned way – biologists’ “eyes in the sky” making an accounting from helicoptors. Those flights have been down to one every other week in recent years. The flights were cut back from once a week because of safety concerns. Adverse weather conditions in the region, such as strong winds often prevail and have caused many flight cancellations over the years.

“It’s been one of the best tests we’ve done,” Groves said of the redd counting experiment. The helicopter counts for 2011 totaled 1,972 shallow water redds. The hexacopter method tallied 1,922. Idaho Power owns the Hells Canyon Complex of three dams on the lower Snake, the first of which was completed in 1959.

“It’s better than my eye in the sky,” Groves said of the remote controlled method. He said the video allowed biologists to better study the situation in the river below, and sort through issues such as the overlay of redds – nests built on top of nests.

“Flights were able to be conducted, and useable video data was collected, even under adverse conditions of strong wind, which would have otherwise resulted in cancelling a traditional helicopter survey due to safety,” according to the Feb. 7, 2012, “2011 Snake River Fall Chinook Salmon Spawning Survey” prepared by the IPC, Nez Perce Tribe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Preliminary assessment of the video data clearly shows redds (as well as fish) at each site. Previous years’ data from those sites indicate that a relationship can be developed and used to estimate total shallow Snake River redds based on the total number of redds observed at those sites,” the report says.

“… based on what was observed during the season, the use of the hexacopter for ultimate data collection was a clear success, and it is recommended that this type of technology be adapted for future use, in lieu of helicopter surveys, based on safety and costs” the 2011 summary report says.

As it stands, the IPC as a non-public company must obtain a “Special Airworthiness Certificate” from the FAA to continue the experiment on its own this year.

“It’s very complicated; it’s very time involved, and it’s very expensive,” Groves said of the certification process as he sees it. The company has discussed in the interim having the redd survey work done under contract by University of Alaska researchers who have in the past completed the FAA permitting process.

“We have not given up on this,” Groves said.

“It’s added a tremendous area of safety,” Groves said of using unmanned aircraft for the work.

Likewise, he said he understands that it is the FAA responsibility to assure that the nation’s airspace is safe.

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