Steelhead returning to the Crooked
All sides wading into the debate over how best to restore the run
By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: December 03. 2006 5:00AM PST
PRINEVILLE – The first steelhead in the Crooked River for more than 30 years could be seen as early as next year, preparing for their journey through the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex to the ocean.
But the newly reintroduced population would not be fishable for several years at least, and the long-term conditions for fishing are unclear, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The steelhead reintroduction is a condition of the new 50-year license for the Pelton-Round Butte dams, which are owned by Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. Steelhead have not existed in their traditional spawning grounds since the dams were built in the 1960s, blocking downstream passage for the juvenile fish born in the Crooked.
“If everything is successful and we meet conservation objectives, the desire is to have enough fish returning that we could offer fisheries,” said Steven Marx, district fisheries biologist in the Bend office of the Fish and Wildlife Department. “Certainly, that’s a ways down the road.”
Federal, state and county officials are currently preparing for the return of the steelhead, a process that is already raising some concerns. The Crook County Court wants certain concessions from the National Marine Fisheries Service in anticipation of the planned reintroduction.
County commissioners have asked for the help of Oregon’s congressional delegation in persuading the Fisheries Service to designate the Crooked River steelhead an “experimental population,” which would remove some restrictions on local farmers and businesses. They also want the Fisheries Service to locate a representative in Central Oregon to handle any concerns that might arise.
Crook County Court Judge Scott Cooper said the decision has already been made to reintroduce steelhead and the county does not want to debate that decision.
“The steelhead and the salmon are important cultural symbols in Oregon and the intent is to try to improve those runs, and if that benefits the fishery in the future, so much the better,” Cooper said. “The Crooked River is renowned as a fish run — there’s a lot of people out there fly-fishing right now.
An ‘experimental’ project
Marx said that the new population will come from hatchery fish at the Round Butte Hatchery. If the steelhead are released as fry — newly hatched fish — the reintroduction will probably start next year, Marx said. If the department instead introduces smolts — about 2-year-old fish — the process would start in spring 2009.
“Those details are still in development,” he said. “One question is, ‘Should we run the facility for a year or two by releasing some test fish prior to moving into more reintroduction-scale releases?’”
Historically, juvenile steelhead migrated from the Crooked River downstream into the Deschutes River and eventually out to the ocean. The construction of the dams disrupted this process.
While the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will be in charge of the reintroduction project, the Fisheries Service has federal jurisdiction over anadromous fish — ones that travel between freshwater and ocean environments — like the steelhead, said Scott Carlon, a fish biologist with the Fisheries Service.
If the newly reintroduced group of fish were designated as an “experimental population,” that would mean that it is considered nonessential to the species as a whole, Carlon said. Local residents and businesses would therefore not always have to consult with the Fisheries Service about activities that could adversely affect the fish. Currently, Middle Columbia River steelhead are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Cooper said the “experimental population” designation would lift some burdens off the county.
“The problem with endangered species reintroductions is there are always unanticipated consequences,” Cooper said. “(The Fisheries Service) doesn’t afford any protection to existing uses. What we would be doing is asking them to recognize and protect the existing uses.”
In September, county commissioners met with members of the congressional delegation during a trip to Washington, D.C. They sent a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Gordon Smith and Rep. Greg Walden asking Congress to direct the Fisheries Service to “recognize the ‘experimental’ language in common use by USFW … (and) place a local agency representative in the area for ongoing consultation with local communities, local business and local government.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized experimental populations in the past. But the Fisheries Service has never before used the “experimental” designation, Carlon said, because of the nature of anadromous fish.
“This agency has never designated an experimental population, that’s not to say that it can’t or wouldn’t in the future,” Carlon said. “The group of animals designated as experimental can’t intermingle, interbreed with (Endangered Species Act) listed fish — with anadromous fish that’s pretty tough because they’re moving out to the ocean and coming back with all the other fish.”
Currently, Cooper said, the county is waiting to see what happens with congressional committee appointments in January. Because the Fisheries Service, which is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is a federal agency, influencing it to accept an experimental designation could require congressional involvement.
A local face
Cooper said the appointment of a Fisheries Service representative for Central Oregon would also be done at the federal level.
“If you’re going to put big fish populations in communities, then you have to have somebody those communities can talk to who understands what’s going on on the ground and the water, and that person probably doesn’t live 1,000 miles away,” he said.
Last month, the Crook County Natural Resources Planning Committee, an advisory and educational body, sent the County Court a letter expressing the importance of having a local Fisheries Service employee to help with the reintroduction process.
Mike Lunn, a facilitator for the Natural Resources Planning Committee, said many local farmers, contractors and other residents have questions about the reintroduction process. Lunn said he has talked to specialists at the Fish and Wildlife Service field office in Bend, but it would help to have a Bend-based Fisheries Service representative.
“You’ve got two different departments involved, one of whom we have really close working relationships with and an office in Bend that’s been able to give us really good info, but ultimately they’re not the ones making the decision,” Lunn said. “If you’re going to be doing a lot of different activities, doing a lot of education and stuff, it sure is handy to have someone here, so that’s what we would like to see.”
The fishing factor
Cooper said that, at this point, there is not much debate about whether the reintroduction should go ahead.
“We’re not at all interested in picking a fight about whether reintroduction is a good idea or not, that decision’s been made,” he said. “Now the question is, how do we learn to live with fish and make it work for the people and the fish?”
But Shane Stewart, conservation chairman for Washington County Fly Fishers, a charter club of the Federation of Fly Fishers, said hatchery fish can be damaging to a river.
“They compete with the wild fish that are present in the river,” Stewart said. “Any time that you introduce, whether experimental or not, a population of hatchery fish into a wild environment, it’s not always a good thing.”
Brett Hodgson, assistant district fish biologist at the Prineville branch of the state Fish and Wildlife Department, said that the young hatchery fish will most likely be released into McKay Creek, Ochoco Creek and two locations upstream and downstream of Prineville in the main branch of the Crooked River.
“Genetically, they would be similar to the wild fish that historically were here,” Hodgson said.
If fry are released, they would take about three years to grow, swim out to the ocean and return, whereas smolts would take about two years. That means adult fish could be seen in the river as early as 2010.
Hodgson said it would be several years after that before the state Fish and Wildlife Department would allow fishing of the adult steelhead.
“We would have to some level of success with natural production and fish demonstrating an ability to be self-sustaining populations prior to any open fishery for them,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any definitive timeline on that.”
And Cordova of the Fish and Wildlife Service said he does not think the steelhead would offer more fishing in the Crooked River because the fish would probably be spawning by the time they made it back to Prineville. Fishers should avoid spawning groups so as not to disturb the reproductive cycle, he said.
“We have a number of years right now to deal with a number of the fish passage problems and maybe potentially some water quality problems (such as water temperature),” he said. “It’s going to be a unique experience for the city, there’s no doubt.”