Nez Perce Release Coho Smolts Into NE Oregon’s Lostine River To Bring Back Fish Absent For 40 Years

Nez Perce Release Coho Smolts Into NE Oregon’s Lostine River To Bring Back Fish Absent For 40 Years

The release of 500,000 coho salmon smolts into northeast Oregon’s Lostine River this week marked the return of a species absent 40 years from the Grande Ronde River Basin.

Nez Perce tribal members and staff, representatives from fisheries agencies and members of the public gathered at the site of a former Nez Perce Tribe village to watch as a portion of the half million fish were ceremoniously released into the Lostine River.

Mary Jane Miles, Nez Perce Tribal Committee Chair, lauded the return of coho to the Lostine.

“It is a great honor to be able to witness the first steps in reintroducing coho salmon, ‘cuhlii’ as they are known to the Nez Perce people, back to an area where they have been absent for far too long,” Miles said. “The Tribe has worked towards this day for almost 30 years and it is wonderful to see the fruits of that labor become a reality.” 

According to Jim Harbeck, manager of the Tribal Fisheries’ Joseph Field Office, in the early 20th century 20,000 coho returned to the Lower Lostine.

“The Wallowa and Lostine rivers were always the core – that’s where coho hung on the longest and were the most abundant,” Harbeck said.

The Nez Perce village site is now owned by the Woody Wolfe Ranch. The Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Research Management has an agreement with the Wolfe family to operate a weir for steelhead and chinook research and tribal members exercise their fishing treaty rights here – the same place Chief Joseph lived with his Wallowa Band of Nez Perce.

“There was a lot of positive interaction between the Wallowa band and early settlers at that village site,” Harbeck said.

When the village was inhabited by Nez Perce the steelhead, chinook, sockeye and coho that ran up the Wallowa and Lostine rivers were staples of their diet. By the early 1900s most of the Grande Ronde coho stock was wiped out by a list of factors including a failed hatchery experiment, overfishing and eventually irrigation diversions and hydroelectric dam construction, Becky Johnson of Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries said.

A graph prepared by Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries shows 900 adult coho were tallied at Lower Granite Dam in 1976, the farthest upstream of the lower Snake River hydroelectric projects.

In 1977 only 270 coho were counted crossing Lower Granite and Ken Witty, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Enterprise fish biologist at the time, conducted his last coho spawning ground surveys that year, Harbeck said.

By 1987 no coho were counted at Lower Granite — until the first adults from the Tribe’s Clearwater River reintroduction came back from the ocean in 1997.

As soon as 1988 the Tribe started working on a coho recovery plan. Michael Bisbee, Nez Perce Tribe’s coho project leader, said hatchery smolts from the lower Columbia were released into the Clearwater 1995. In 1997, 93 of those fish were documented crossing Lower Granite as adults.

In 2014 more than 18,000 adults returned to the Clearwater, enough, Bisbee said, for Idaho Fish and Game to open a coho season to the public.

Johnson said those first returning adults were small and not in good health, but subsequent returns developed into a brighter and healthier stock than those first returning fish — fish that were bigger and better conditioned to swim the distance.

Numbers have fluctuated greatly over the years since the Clearwater reintroduction. In 2016 only 3,170 adults returned on a goal of 14,000, but Bisbee said he’s not overly disappointed.

“Three thousand is better than zero fish,” Bisbee said.

In 1998 Harbeck said the Tribe wanted to do further coho reintroduction planning for the Grande Ronde. They hired Witty who was retired from ODFW, to write a feasibility study for the reintroduction of coho and sockeye. In 2004 Witty helped write the Nez Perce Tribe’s more detailed master coho plan.

Today Witty’s vision of restoring coho to the Grande Ronde Basin is shared by current ODFW Enterprise fish biologist, Jeff Yanke who said his agency co-manages Wallowa County’s rivers with the Tribe.

“We spent decades trying to bring back these top level species that depend on a web of habitat. By reintroducing coho we have one of those links back in the support system that helps the other species as well,” Yanke said.

Johnson said Lostine coho releases will continue through 2022.

“We’ll see what we get from that and start implementing broodstock,” Johnson said.

She said the baseline goal for returning adults is 540 – all captured fish would be used for hatchery reproduction.

“Five hundred and forty is not very many, but these fish are from parents who only made it to Bonneville Dam. To get to Lostine they have to cross seven more dams and swim 350 more miles,” Johnson said.

Raising the progeny of the returning coho is expected to breed bigger, stronger fish as occurred in a couple generations after the Clearwater coho reintroduction.

The fish that return as adults will arrive in the fall of 2018. Johnson said then they will get a sense of the first release.

The coho stock used in both the Clearwater and the Lostine reintroductions came from the lower Columbia and are not native to the Snake Basin. The Lostine reintroduction is being paid for through the Mitchell Act and Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. Mitchell Act funding, James Dixon National Marine Fisheries Service Mitchell Act coordinator, said is money that has largely been used since to pay for hatchery programs and to screen irrigation ditches.

Dixon said, “Even though coho are not listed, they are an important aspect of the representation of native species in the basin.”

Coho, played a big part in the Tribe’s legend story, Harbeck said.

“When the creator asked the animals who would help the humans, coho and chinook were the first to step forward,” Harbeck said.

Returning coho to the Lostine is another attempt, like bringing back Pacific lamprey to the basin in 2012, in reconstructing the Tribe’s traditional food web.

“This coho reintroduction is perfectly aligned with how the Nez Perce Tribe manages for all species holistically – returning one of the threads in the fabric to the ecology of Wallowa County,” Harbeck said.

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By Katy Nesbit 
for Wallowa Valley Online

 

The release of 500,000 coho salmon smolts into northeast Oregon’s Lostine River this week marked the return of a species absent 40 years from the Grande Ronde River Basin.

Nez Perce tribal members and staff, representatives from fisheries agencies and members of the public gathered at the site of a former Nez Perce Tribe village to watch as a portion of the half million fish were ceremoniously released into the Lostine River.

 

Mary Jane Miles, Nez Perce Tribal Committee Chair, lauded the return of coho to the Lostine.

“It is a great honor to be able to witness the first steps in reintroducing coho salmon, ‘cuhlii’ as they are known to the Nez Perce people, back to an area where they have been absent for far too long,” Miles said. “The Tribe has worked towards this day for almost 30 years and it is wonderful to see the fruits of that labor become a reality.” 

According to Jim Harbeck, manager of the Tribal Fisheries’ Joseph Field Office, in the early 20th century 20,000 coho returned to the Lower Lostine.

“The Wallowa and Lostine rivers were always the core – that’s where coho hung on the longest and were the most abundant,” Harbeck said.

The Nez Perce village site is now owned by the Woody Wolfe Ranch. The Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Research Management has an agreement with the Wolfe family to operate a weir for steelhead and chinook research and tribal members exercise their fishing treaty rights here – the same place Chief Joseph lived with his Wallowa Band of Nez Perce.

“There was a lot of positive interaction between the Wallowa band and early settlers at that village site,” Harbeck said.

When the village was inhabited by Nez Perce the steelhead, chinook, sockeye and coho that ran up the Wallowa and Lostine rivers were staples of their diet. By the early 1900s most of the Grande Ronde coho stock was wiped out by a list of factors including a failed hatchery experiment, overfishing and eventually irrigation diversions and hydroelectric dam construction, Becky Johnson of Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries said.

A graph prepared by Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries shows 900 adult coho were tallied at Lower Granite Dam in 1976, the farthest upstream of the lower Snake River hydroelectric projects.

In 1977 only 270 coho were counted crossing Lower Granite and Ken Witty, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Enterprise fish biologist at the time, conducted his last coho spawning ground surveys that year, Harbeck said.

By 1987 no coho were counted at Lower Granite — until the first adults from the Tribe’s Clearwater River reintroduction came back from the ocean in 1997.

As soon as 1988 the Tribe started working on a coho recovery plan. Michael Bisbee, Nez Perce Tribe’s coho project leader, said hatchery smolts from the lower Columbia were released into the Clearwater 1995. In 1997, 93 of those fish were documented crossing Lower Granite as adults.

In 2014 more than 18,000 adults returned to the Clearwater, enough, Bisbee said, for Idaho Fish and Game to open a coho season to the public.

Johnson said those first returning adults were small and not in good health, but subsequent returns developed into a brighter and healthier stock than those first returning fish — fish that were bigger and better conditioned to swim the distance.

Numbers have fluctuated greatly over the years since the Clearwater reintroduction. In 2016 only 3,170 adults returned on a goal of 14,000, but Bisbee said he’s not overly disappointed.

“Three thousand is better than zero fish,” Bisbee said.

In 1998 Harbeck said the Tribe wanted to do further coho reintroduction planning for the Grande Ronde. They hired Witty who was retired from ODFW, to write a feasibility study for the reintroduction of coho and sockeye. In 2004 Witty helped write the Nez Perce Tribe’s more detailed master coho plan.

Today Witty’s vision of restoring coho to the Grande Ronde Basin is shared by current ODFW Enterprise fish biologist, Jeff Yanke who said his agency co-manages Wallowa County’s rivers with the Tribe.

“We spent decades trying to bring back these top level species that depend on a web of habitat. By reintroducing coho we have one of those links back in the support system that helps the other species as well,” Yanke said.

Johnson said Lostine coho releases will continue through 2022.

“We’ll see what we get from that and start implementing broodstock,” Johnson said.

She said the baseline goal for returning adults is 540 – all captured fish would be used for hatchery reproduction.

“Five hundred and forty is not very many, but these fish are from parents who only made it to Bonneville Dam. To get to Lostine they have to cross seven more dams and swim 350 more miles,” Johnson said.

Raising the progeny of the returning coho is expected to breed bigger, stronger fish as occurred in a couple generations after the Clearwater coho reintroduction.

The fish that return as adults will arrive in the fall of 2018. Johnson said then they will get a sense of the first release.

The coho stock used in both the Clearwater and the Lostine reintroductions came from the lower Columbia and are not native to the Snake Basin. The Lostine reintroduction is being paid for through the Mitchell Act and Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. Mitchell Act funding, James Dixon National Marine Fisheries Service Mitchell Act coordinator, said is money that has largely been used since to pay for hatchery programs and to screen irrigation ditches.

Dixon said, “Even though coho are not listed, they are an important aspect of the representation of native species in the basin.”

Coho, played a big part in the Tribe’s legend story, Harbeck said.

“When the creator asked the animals who would help the humans, coho and chinook were the first to step forward,” Harbeck said.

Returning coho to the Lostine is another attempt, like bringing back Pacific lamprey to the basin in 2012, in reconstructing the Tribe’s traditional food web.

“This coho reintroduction is perfectly aligned with how the Nez Perce Tribe manages for all species holistically – returning one of the threads in the fabric to the ecology of Wallowa County,” Harbeck said.

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ANGELIKA URSULA DIETRICH, owner and publisher of Wild Horses Thunder and Wild Horses Media Productions is a professional Photographer, Videographer, Publisher, Writer, Social Media Consultant, and Website Developer.

Angelika’s photography work has been displayed in Cowboys & Indians (2016 & 2018) and various Oregon and Washington entertainment and vacation publications, Chief Joseph Days Rodeo Program and website (2012-2020), at Art Gallery Festivals, private businesses, as well as for display advertisement for many clients in and out of Wallowa County including the Wallowa County Chieftain (2003-2007)

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