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Salmon, Steelhead Spawning, Rearing In New White Salmon River Habitat Above Removed Condit Dam Site
Posted on Friday, February 13, 2015 (PST)

Both salmon and steelhead species seem to be taking advantage of new spawning and rearing habitat options made available via the 2011 breaching and removal of Condit Dam on the lower White Salmon River in southwest Washington.


A total of 88 spring chinook spawners were estimated to have entered the river in 2013, and another 216 in 2014, according to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fishery biologist Jeremy Wilson.


Spring chinook are utilizing the area above Condit Dam’s former location, Wilson said.


“It looks like most of the spawning has been below Husum” Falls, he said, which is located at river mile 7.6. The falls, ranging from 10-12 feet in height, are about 4.5 miles from BZ Falls, which would stop all but the most athletic fish.


The spawning in long-vacant areas upstream of the former dam and its reservoir, Northwestern Lake, indicates the first success of the salmon restoration for the White Salmon basin, the natural recolonization of species that flourished in the river prior to dam construction.


A few spring chinook were suspected in recent history to have spawned annually in the lower 3.3 miles of the river. But most of the new recruits are believed to be strays from nearby rivers and hatcheries. Nearby donors could be the Hood River across the Columbia in Oregon and Washington’s Klickitat River.


“That’s the big question,” Wilson said of the spawner source.


Steelhead – rainbow trout that are born and spawn in freshwater but spend their growing-up time in the ocean – are also starting to appear in the White Salmon and its tributaries such as Rattlesnake and Buck Creeks.


“We’ve seen about 10-12 redds per year in those two streams,” said Yakama Nation fisheries biologist Joe Zendt.


“And there is likely to be more than that,” he said, since those egg nests are hard to spot during the high water in springtime, when most of the steelhead spawn.


Their source is also still a mystery. A few carcasses of spawned out fish have been retrieved, but all were too decomposed to allow genetic analysis. The fish could potentially be from resident rainbow trout that chose to adopt the steelhead life history, or from fish strayed from other locations.


Zendt said that the construction of from 10 to 12 redds, at minimum, in each of the past two years means that likely at least 25 to 40 steelhead have made the spawning journey up the White Salmon.


“We really thought Rattlesnake would be a good steelhead producer,” Zendt said. Rattlesnake enters the White Salmon just below Husum, Buck Creek enters near the former head of Northwestern Lake.


He said that rafters and kayakers on the popular whitewater river have reported seeing steelhead even above daunting BZ Falls.


“It would take the right flow conditions, the right fish and the right jump” to clear BZ. “But it’s possible,” Zendt said.


Numbers of steelhead and salmon now seen in the White Salmon River are still relatively small, and the river likely will never be seen as a major source of such fish as compared to the Columbia River system as a whole.


“But every little bit helps,” Zendt said of efforts by Columbia Basin tribes, states, federal agencies and others to restore depleted salmon stocks. The tule fall chinook salmon that have long frequented the lower White Salmon, as an example, are one of 13 Columbia basin stocks that are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.


Roughly 1,700 tule spawners are estimated to have spawned in the White Salmon last fall, which is high but not far from the norm.


Their spawning has remained “pretty confined to the lower river,” Wilson said. Most of those spawners are either naturally produced fish from the river, or hatchery strays from nearby Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery.


There was little evidence of upstream spawning of tules. There was an attempt made in 2011 prior to breaching to capture tule fall chinook found in the lower river and transport them for release upstream of the dam. The primary goals were to encourage spawning upstream, and prevent spawning near the river mouth where redds would be inundated by sediment immediatelyi following the dam breaching.


2014 would have been the time that 3 year olds produced by those transported fish would return.


“You would think the distribution would change,” Wilson said of tule spawning last year. But researchers saw little change.


“There were no tules above the former dam site, said Joe Salicky of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which along with the Yakama Nation and WDFW has engaged in post-Condit monitoring for fish.


“The river is restoring itself faster than anyone thought,” Salicky said of both the habitat, and fish returns.


“It appears it’s a win-win-win situation” for fish, Salicky said of the newly cleared White Salmon River.


The 2014 return did, however, include an estimated 6,500 so-called “bright” fall chinook.


“That’s a big number,” Wilson said of a stock that did spread upriver to spawn. The overall 2013 fall chinook bright returns to areas upstream of Bonneville such as the mid-Columbia’s Hanford Reach and the Snake River basin were the two biggest in recent history.


“The thought is that they originated from hatchery stocks” that strayed into the river on their way toward their natal spawning areas, and decided to stay.


Wilson said that about 75 percent of the brights in the river were hatchery produced, while about 1,950 were unmarked fish that are likely of natural origin. The unmarked fish too could be either of local origin, or strays.


Condit Dam since its construction in 1912-13 had for the most part blocked passage to the river’s upper reaches, confining spawning to the lower three miles of the river from its confluence with the Columbia River in the reservoir created by Bonneville Dam.


The dam was the only man-made impoundment between between the Cascade Mountains’ Mount Adams and the Columbia River and its removal open approximately 33 miles of new spawning and rearing grounds for steelhead and 15 miles of new habitat for salmon in the White Salmon River basin.


The dam’s owner, PacifiCorp, agreed to decommission and remove the project dam and water conveyance system in accordance with the 1999 Condit Hydroelectric Project Settlement Agreement and the related Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Surrender Order issued in December 2010. The private utility decided that it would be more economical to remove the dam than it would be to outfit the dam with salmon passage facilities that would be required by FERC to relicense the facility.


The White Salmon Working Group, which is a consortium of Yakama Nation, federal, state, and PacifiCorp biologists, has estimated the White Salmon River has enough spawning grounds to accommodate more than 600 steelhead spawners and 1,200 fall chinook. Bull trout, coho, lamprey and spring chinook could also benefit from a reconnected river.


Also see:


-- CBB, May 31, 2013, “A Year After Condit Dam Breaching, Natural Origin Salmonids Spawn In New Miles Of Upstream Habitat”


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