CTFW released 100 Chinook into San Poil in August

KELLER - In August, the Colville Tribal Fish and Wildlife Department trapped and hauled 100 adult chinook salmon from Wells Fish Hatchery, below Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams - the two massive concrete structures that have blocked migration of salmon into the northern reaches of the Columbia River and its tributaries for nearly seven decades - and released them into the San Poil River.

Now, CTFW has announced surveys have shown those salmon successfully spawned in the San Poil.

“Most of the chinook stayed in the area and a lot of them spawned,” said CTFW Senior Research Scientist Casey Baldwin. “We were able to document 36 redds (spawning nests) in about a 6 mile reach from West Fork downstream. The fish held there through the late summer and started spawning in October.  It looks like we had really good survival and conversion to spawning.”

The project, which Baldwin noted was cobbled together through existing tribal funds and limited staff hours, looked at the feasibility and effectiveness of moving “naive adult” salmon – salmon who are not from the San Poil River - into a new tributary as part of reintroduction. 

The results thus far have been a success, said Baldwin.

“It is a positive indication that transporting these naive adults, who haven’t experienced a particular river system in their life history, that they can be successful at surviving and at spawning, or at least building a nest,” said Baldwin. “We know they spawned, we don’t know how successful they’ll be at pulling off the next generation, but we know they survived and they spawned. It’s a very positive outcome.”

According to Baldwin, all 100 of the chinook released were fitted with PIT tags, which release data when the fish pass over previously installed arrays in the river system.

CTFW has had arrays installed at the West Fork of Gold Creek on the San Poil as well as at the mouth of the San Poil, and Baldwin noted three salmon had passed over the upriver scanner, moving further up Gold Creek.

Baldwin further explained each redd represents at least two salmon, but as of yet, CTFW does not know if a small number of the chinook moved downriver into different parts of the San Poil.

“We don’t know if a small portion of the fish dropped down into somewhere else in the San Poil to spawn, we did not have the resources to survey the whole river,” said Baldwin. “We could have also had some mortality. We are also looking at whether any fish left the San Poil, but based on the number of redds, the number of observations of fish, it appears the majority of them stayed up there and spawned.”

The CTFW Resident Fish Program operates a trap in the lower San Poil, and Baldwin noted if spawning is successful, juveniles may be caught in that trap as part of their outward migration.

CTFW also has taken genetic samples from each salmon, which will be used to create genetic profiles of the salmon to potentially track any offspring caught downriver in activities that track salmon genetics.

In July, the department released an additional 50 chinook salmon, fitted with acoustic tags, into Lake Roosevelt from Geezer Beach near Grand Coulee Dam and from Northport, but Baldwin report the data for those fish has not yet been analyzed.

Over winter, Baldwin noted both studies will be fully analyzed and compiled into reports.

In 2019, the Upper Columbia United Tribes, which includes the Colville Tribes, Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Kalispel Tribe, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the Spokane Tribe, published a feasibility study regarding the reintroduction of salmon above the dams.

That study, which was a first phase in salmon introduction, looked at the current dam operations, the existing habitat above the dams, donor stock availability, the risk to current fish species above the dam and technologies used to move salmon over high-head dams. It also included a life-cycle model that allowed evaluation of the potential benefits of reintroduction in terms of returning adults that could be harvested and allowed to spawn.

Moving forward, Baldwin noted the tribes and their partners are looking at future studies as part of the second phase of reintroduction.

“In terms of what is coming up in the future there is still some uncertainty of that,” said Baldwin. “We are working on phase two, which includes an implementation plan that will help guide which studies need to happen and what those studies need to look like. Developing and implementing studies is a big emphasis in Phase 2. Then we will continue to seek funding and coordinate with other stakeholders like the federal government, states and other tribes.  Another important area of emphasis will be studying the downstream migration of juveniles in the reservoirs and around the dams.”

Baldwin added: “Although small studies such as this show promise and progress, it is apparent that there is a lot of work to do to return salmon to their historic habitat upstream of Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams.  It will take time and patience to see it implemented in a big way.”

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