Native American tribes who want help to continue reintroducing salmon above Grand Coulee Dam have asked for support to continue fish survival studies. At Northwest Power and Conservation Council meetings last week, officials from the tribes said they need support for donor stocks, rearing equipment and equipment for the acoustic and PIT tagging studies.
The phased reintroduction has been a long time coming.
When Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams were built nearly a hundred years ago, those dams blocked salmon from swimming to the upper reaches of the Columbia River.
At the time, tribal elders called it the beginning of the end, a death by drowning, as Lake Roosevelt flooded some of the best fishing spots for the Upper Columbia tribes.
Now, efforts to bring salmon around the dams and into the blocked area are gaining momentum, and bringing a hopeful renewal of rights, tribal officials said.
“Being on the right side of history and righting the wrong that was done to a lot of our people in the Upper Columbia is why I do this,” said Jarred-Michael Erickson, natural resource and fisheries chairman with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
For four generations, massive cement dams blocked the path of the salmon to the Upper Columbia. As salmon return, the tribes can heal, said Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council.
“There are still pools of very cool water that wait – they wait for the return of salmon,” Evans said.
That cool water waits no longer. Since 2019, the Upper Columbia United Tribes have transported salmon around the dams and released them in cultural and educational ceremonies.
Tribes have released salmon into tributaries from the Sanpoil River on Lake Roosevelt to Chamokane Creek, known as Tshimikain by the Spokane Tribe of Indians, in the lower part of the Spokane River Basin.
Fish behavior studies from these releases have proven salmon can survive in the blocked areas, biologists said. In fact, salmon tagged from the area have migrated out to sea and returned to Chief Joseph Dam, Evans said.
The work to reintroduce salmon in the Upper Columbia will have a significant effect in one of the most-impacted, least-mitigated areas in the basin, said Joe Maroney, Fishery and Water Resources director for the Kalispel Tribe of Indians.
Now, the tribes are asking for help to reintroduce salmon through continuing research and monitoring efforts that could take more than 20 years.
The tribes have secured $1.2 million from various sources, including Washington state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, individual tribes, and Avista Utilities. Those funds will help with some rearing facilities, a fish survival study with acoustic tags, and another survival study with PIT tags, which are tags that are injected in fish.
However, the tribes said much more is needed. Right now, the tribes estimate the project could cost $176 million over 20 years, which would average to roughly $8.5 million per year, said Tom Biladeau, a habitat restoration biologist with the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.
He likens the future 20 years of researching, monitoring and evaluating data to a hike from one hill to another hill far in the distance. You know you want to make it to the distant hill, in this case full salmon reintroduction. However, you might not see all the bumps in the road to get there.
“This implementation plan is really that map, that path, to get us from where we are now, to where we want to be in the future,” Biladeau said.
Like a back country hike, the reintroduction plan can be adapted, he said.
To continue studying the salmon, the tribes need a source of fish eggs. Initial studies identified the best broodstock, which included Chief Joseph hatchery summer chinook and sockeye from the Okanogan Basin.
“Rearing facilities need to be large enough to rear over 100,000 of each species,” said Conor Giorgi, Anadromous program manager with Spokane Tribal Fisheries.
These facilities should support egg incubation all the way to sub-yearling fish, Giorgi said. Tribes could use existing facilities or build new ones to support the effort, he said.
Rearing fish from sub-yearling to yearling life stages also would need a combination of net pens, similar to pens already on Lake Roosevelt and land-based facilities along tributaries, such as the Sanpoil and Spokane rivers, Giorgi said.
That may sound like a lot of fish, said Casey Baldwin, a research scientist with the Colville Tribes, but the request is not that many compared to existing hatchery programs.
“Taking advantage of some of the staffing and infrastructure that’s already in place, it’s not a huge build-out,” Baldwin said of the net-pens already on Lake Roosevelt.
Biladeau said the tribes also are asking for a small number of eggs compared to summer chinook hatcheries in the area.
“Most certainly all of this work hinges on the ability to rear fish successfully for these studies,” he said. “It’s important for us to be able to get our hands on a consistent source, a reliable source, of juveniles throughout the implementation plan.”
The reintroduction efforts would not change hydropower production, irrigation, or flood risk, Biladeau said.
Right now, the tribes are hammering out a fix to legislative language that does not allow the Bonneville Power Administration to donate broodstock from its Chief Joseph hatchery, Erickson said.
“The legislative fix will be a big step because those are fish that have been found to be the best donor stock at Chief Joseph hatchery,” Erickson said.
A meeting between the Upper Columbia United Tribes and BPA is scheduled for Thursday.
Restoring salmon to the blocked areas will be a benefit throughout the Columbia River and for ocean fisheries, Biladeau said. This effort also will benefit the ecosystem as a whole, he said.
Chuck Sams, Northwest Power and Conservation Council member and a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said the Upper Columbia reintroduction effort is similar to the Umatilla Basin Salmon Recovery Project in the 1980s.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built a large irrigation project in Oregon’s Umatilla River Basin. The federal government then allocated water guaranteed to the tribe under the Treaty of 1855 to farmers, pitting the tribe and farmers against one another, according to a report from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.
Salmon became extinct on the Umatilla River until the 1980s, when the Umatilla Basin Salmon Recovery Project not only restored salmon to the river but helped support agriculture, according to the report.
Sams said he watched as the salmon returned in the 1990s, with the help of a collaborative approach similar to the Upper Columbia United Tribes is taking.
“This isn’t about just the tribes. This was about everyone being able to see salmon return to their homelands – sports fishermen, commercial fishermen, and everyone in-between,” Sams said.