Native Trout in the Pend Oreille Watershed
by Nick Bean • Pend Oreille Lead Entity Coordinator
Following the installation of the Grand Coulee Dams in 1941, anadromous Pacific salmon and steelhead were extirpated from the Pend Oreille River Watershed. Since these species no longer exist in the Pend Oreille, there is now an extensive focus on the recovery and protection of native salmonids such as bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. These two fish species were historically abundant throughout northeast Washington and northern Idaho, but now due to severe habitat degradation and loss, as well as non-native fish introductions, both have precipitously declined. In 1998, bull trout were listed as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and westslope cutthroat are now considered to be a “species of concern” by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Historically, bull trout were thought to be abundant in the Pend Oreille River (Gilbert and Evermann 1895) existing primarily in an adfluvial life history. With this adfluvial migration pattern, bull trout would migrate out of the Pend Oreille and Priest Lakes into the Pend Oreille River and ultimately spawn in the rivers tributary streams. The bull trout progeny would then migrate back to lake and continue this cycle as adults. This life history was disrupted following the installation of Albeni Falls Dam below Lake Pend Oreille in 1952 (USFWS 2002). This hydroelectric facility was constructed without fish passage facilities therefore effectively eliminating the possibility of upstream migration. Presently, bull trout abundance is low in WRIA 62 (USFWS 2002, WCC 2003) and sightings in the system are irregular but more common in portions of the Priest and Salmo systems.
As with bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout were also historically abundant throughout Pend Oreille River Watershed (Wydoski and Whitney 2003). Traditionally two life history forms existed in the area. The migratory or fluvial life history pattern was thought to occur in the Pend Oreille River and associated tributaries while the resident life history occurred throughout the watershed (USFWS 2002). Although distribution and abundance of westslope cutthroat trout is not completely understood, the extent has been reduced from historic levels. Hydroelectric facilities, fish passage barriers, non-native fish introductions, forest management practices among other factors have contributed to the extensive diminution of westslope cutthroat trout in the Pend Oreille. These factors are on the forefront of significant corrective actions needed to recover native salmonid populations in the Pend Oreille Watershed.
In 2000 the Pend Oreille Salmonid Recovery Team (POSRT) was created under the Salmon Recovery Act (Act) for Water Resource Inventory Area (WRIA) 62 in northeast Washington. The Recovery Team consists of a Technical Advisory Group (TAG) and a Citizen Advisory Group (CAG) and is coordinated by the Kalispel Tribe Lead Entity. The Act provides an annual opportunity for the Recovery Team to submit a list of salmonid habitat protection and improvement projects to the Salmon Recovery Funding Board (SRFB) for funding consideration. The SRFB is authorized by the Washington State Legislature to fund projects that target salmonid recovery activities and projects statewide.
Many of the watersheds located within the Pend Oreille River drainage have been impacted through decades of disturbance associated with population expansion, forest practices, hydroelectric facilities and the extensive introduction and management of non-native fish species. Recognizing the need to correct these impacts, also understanding that community support is critical to the process, the Recovery Team established the following vision statement: “We envision a healthy watershed that provides for the recovery of native salmonids, while also providing ecological, cultural, recreational, and socio-economic benefits” (POSRT 2007). Understanding the vision, the Recovery Team developed a strategy to improve the habitat for native salmonids such as bull and westslope cutthroat trout. This strategy includes a prioritized list of subbasins, action areas and action steps that address limiting factors to native salmon production in the Pend Oreille Watershed (POSRT 2007).
To date the Recovery Team has received $3,776,030 of SRFB funding to conduct salmon habitat restoration projects in the Pend Oreille area. In addition to this funding, through multiple resources, the Recovery Team has contributed $874,701 in matching funds. When combined, the POSRT has locally invested $4,650,731 over ten years in an effort to restore degraded habitat for our declining native salmonid populations. This funding has been distributed over twenty-four completed or currently active projects. Of these SRFB funded projects, 16 addressed on the ground habitat restoration needs such as road obliterations, fish passage barrier corrections and riparian restoration. In addition to these, three projects were funded to conduct the necessary engineering and design work for future habitat restoration projects within the watershed. The remaining five projects either supplied much needed information regarding fish passage barriers or assessed limiting factors within watersheds.
One example of a typical SRFB restoration project in the Pend Oreille was the South Fork Tacoma Creek Fish Passage project. The sponsor used $145,647 of SRFB funding and contributed $25,703 in project match to restore access to approximately three miles of stream for bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. The primary focus of this project was to replace an existing culvert, a fish passage barrier, with a more adequate bottomless arch culvert. The new structure reinstated the natural form and function of the stream at the crossing and adjacent habitat while opening access to several miles of spawning and rearing habitat for native trout. Although this project seems very simplistic, access to habitat is currently one of the many critical limiting factors for native salmonids throughout the Pend Oreille Watershed.
This, like many other fish passage projects has addressed issues identified as limiting the recovery of native salmon. The Recovery Team is continuing this process and is currently determining which restoration projects to submit for the 2010 SRFB funding cycle. Depending on availability of funding, project sponsors or partners and willing landowners, the project list typically contains restoration actions addressing fish passage barriers, riparian restoration, road reconstruction or obliteration and in-stream restoration such as large wood replenishment. Although the funding through the SRFB has declined over the past ten years, the Recovery Team continues to endure the reductions and restore habitat for our native salmon. The hope for the future is to work with local stakeholders to strengthen partnerships and elevate the funding level so we may protect and ultimately recover native salmon in our watersheds.
Gilbert, C.H. and B.W. Evermann. 1895. A report upon investigations in the Columbia River Basin, with descriptions of four new species of fish. The Miscellaneous Documents of the Senate of the U.S. for the Second Session of the 53rd Congress, 1893-94. Volume 8. Washington: Government Printing Office.
Pend Oreille Salmonid Recovery Team. 2007. Strategy for protection and improvement of native salmonid habitat in the Pend Oreille Watershed, Washington, Water Resource Inventory Area 62. 100 pp.
WCC. 2003. Bull Trout habitat limiting factors: Water Resource Inventory Area 62, Pend Oreille Watershed. 477 pp.
USFWS. 2002. Chapter 23, Northeast Washington Recovery Unit, Washington. 73 p. In USFWS. Bull Trout (Salvelinus confluentus) Draft Recovery Plan. Portland, Oregon.
Wydoski, R.S. and R.L. Whitney. 2003. Inland Fishes of Washington. University of Washington Press. Seattle, WA. 322 pp.