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Groups Intend To Challenge Summer Steelhead Hatchery Program For Willamette, Santiam Rivers
Posted on Friday, March 17, 2017 (PST)

Two conservation groups intend to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, seeking to force the Corps to begin an Endangered Species Act consultation with NOAA Fisheries over the Corps’ hatchery summer steelhead program in Oregon’s Willamette and Santiam rivers.


Saying the Corps is in violation of the ESA due to the impacts of its summer steelhead program on wild winter steelhead in the rivers, Willamette Riverkeeper and The Conservation Angler sent the agency a 60-day notice threatening to sue if the agency does not reinitiate the consultation. The letter of intent was delivered to the Corps March 8.


Willamette River wild winter steelhead were listed as threatened under the ESA in 1999 and the two conservation groups say the hatchery summer steelhead released from Corps-owned hatcheries and stocked for a sport fishery are contributing to wild winter steelhead decline.


The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which operates and manages hatcheries on the two rivers for the Corps, began producing the summer steelhead in the 1960s as mitigation for Corps dams in the rivers’ upper reaches and the resulting decline of the wild winter run of steelhead, according to the groups.


The summer steelhead originated from the Washougal River in Washington so are not native to the Willamette River watershed.


“Incredibly, they began stocking a hatchery fish that was never present in the Willamette, to make up for the dams’ impact on native winter steelhead,” said Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper.


The conservation groups are targeting production of summer steelhead at two Corps-owned hatcheries: Marion Forks and South Santiam hatcheries.


Recently, the Corps said it is seeking new contracts for hatchery operations in the Willamette and hopes to sole-source those contracts to ODFW. The hatcheries are Marion Forks Hatchery on Marion Creek, a tributary of the Santiam River, South Santiam Fish Hatchery, Willamette Fish Hatchery near Oakridge, and the McKenzie Hatchery. The Corps is currently seeking approval from Corps headquarters in Washington D.C.


However, the timing of the LOI is not tied to the Corps’ current contract negotiations with ODFW, said David Moscowitz of the Conservation Angler.


“COE and ODFW have known for a long time that stocking summer steelhead (and rainbow trout) create significant impediments to recovering wild winter steelhead and spring chinook, and that it makes no sense to continue these stocking programs while at the same time the public is spending hundreds of thousands (even millions) of dollars trying to recover wild stocks,” he said.


The groups say that the summer steelhead produced at the hatchery compete with the wild winter steelhead because their presence in the Willamette and its tributaries overlap during spawning and, when they do, hatchery and wild pairs may spawn together. They “do not produce successful offspring so it wastes the productivity of the wild fish,” Moscowitz said.


In addition, some hatchery smolts remain as resident fish and prey on both juvenile wild steelhead and spring chinook, said Bill Bakke, Director of Science and Conservation for The Conservation Angler. They also “compete for food and rearing space, reducing the overall productivity of wild juveniles during rearing and outmigration. And when they do return as adults, they interfere with the spawning success of wild winter steelhead. This has an impact on recovery of threatened winter steelhead.”


A 2008 biological opinion came to the same conclusions, according to the groups’ LOI, adding that studies by state and federal biologists also have identified the harmful impacts from hatchery summer steelhead on wild winter steelhead.


Corps-owned hatcheries in the Willamette River basin also produce spring chinook salmon as mitigation for losses caused by the construction of dams, but those hatchery programs are based on native fish, the groups said, and are not a part of the threatened lawsuit.


They did note in their LOI to the Corps that the agency has “failed to consult” with NOAA Fisheries about the production of trout at a Corps-owned hatchery (Leaburg Hatchery) which compete with both wild winter steelhead and wild spring chinook.


Many of the trout are released upstream of Corps dams, which is another area where they compete with wild steelhead and spring chinook salmon, the LOI says. In reintroduction efforts by ODFW, adult winter steelhead and spring chinook are transported above Foster Dam on the South Santiam River and adult spring chinook are transported upstream of Detroit Dam on the North Santiam River. They spawn and rear in those blocked areas.


The Corps, the groups say, do not have a legal take permit for these activities and that activity, too, requires consultation with NOAA Fisheries.


A similar claim was made in a 2012 lawsuit for McKenzie River Hatchery (operated by ODFW) releases of chinook salmon. Filed by the McKenzie Flyfishers (based in Eugene) and the Steamboaters (based in Roseburg), they claimed that the release of hatchery chinook salmon “adversely affects the productivity and recovery of wild spring Chinook salmon by competing with the wild salmon for food, habitat, and spawning space, by potentially spreading disease to the wild salmon, and by creating offspring [that] have reduced fitness and reproductive success when hatchery salmon spawn with wild salmon.”


The relief asked for in the McKenzie suit was denied by U.S. Magistrate Judge Tom Coffin, finding that ODFW is protected from liability under the federal ESA, but he ordered ODFW to come up with a plan that would set the number of hatchery smolts released into the river with a goal of reducing the proportion of hatchery origin fish on spawning grounds to 10 percent.


The goal of the 60-day notice by Willamette Riverkeepers and The Conservation Angler is to require the Corps “to engage NOAA Fisheries in reinitiating consultation with the Corps on the impacts of out-of-basin hatchery summer steelhead on ESA-listed wild winter steelhead.”


Willamette Riverkeeper, founded in 1996, is focused on protecting and restoring natural resources in the Willamette River basin ( The Conservation Angler ( advocates for wild fish and fisheries.


The two groups are represented by Peter Frost of the Western Environmental Law Center in Eugene.


Also see:


--CBB, March 10, 2017, “Corps Says Five Oregon Mitigation Hatcheries Could Stay With ODFW, May Solicit Bids For Two Others,”


--CBB, February 10, 2017, “Corps To Bid Out Operations At Seven Corps-Owned Oregon Hatcheries Now Managed By ODFW,


--CBB, March 27, 2015, “Judge Rules McKenzie River Salmon Hatchery Releases Sufficient To Protect Wild Fish,”


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