KELLER - Nearly 80 years ago, the Grand Coulee Dam blocked migratory salmon from moving into the Upper Columbia; today, the Colville Confederated Tribes brought those salmon back, releasing 30 summer Chinook into Lake Roosevelt south of Keller at the Keller Ferry alternative landing in what tribal leaders dubbed a cultural release.

“Chief Joseph Dam and the Grand Coulee Dam blocked fish passage,” said Colville Business Council chair Rodney Cawston, speaking to those gathered. “We all know our ancestors, our elders, when those fish were blocked they all gathered at Kettle Falls for the last time when the salmon came up the Columbia River. This event was called the Ceremony of Tears. When you look back into the articles of the day, there were thousands of people who showed up for that event. Ever since that time, with blocking the salmon, it impacted our people here on the Colville Reservation and the people around the Northwest … We’ve lost so much. We have lost a lot of those elders who built fish traps. We used to go to those sites and they’d teach our young people the ways of our people, and how to pay respect for this resource … We pay respect for this resource because we lived with it for thousands of years.”

“Today, although we’re only release 30 fish, it’s very sacred to us, it’s very important to us,” continued Cawston. ”We have strong prayers today, because our ancestors, our elders at the Ceremony of Tears, they had strong prayers that one day we would see these fish return back to the river, back to our people.”

Last week, the tribes had released 30 summer Chinook into Lake Rufus Woods - the stretch of the Columbia River between Chief Joseph Dam and Grand Coulee Dam.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said former CTFW director Joe Peone. “I’m really happy for the Colville Tribes and their dedication to look at fish passage over Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams. It’s good to see the tribes working with the public utilities. It’s good to see Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife supporting it.”

After prayers and short speeches from Cawston and other tribal dignitaries at the event, a Colville Tribal Fish and Wildlife truck backed down the alternative ferry landing pavement where nearly 300 people were gathered.

Tribal members and guests formed two parallel lines as the drum group, Noisy Waters, played. CTFW employees fetched the Chinook from the truck and placed the salmon into rubber carriers one at a time. Those carriers were handed down the lines alternatively.

Colville tribal elder Barb Aripa released the first into the water with the assistance of Keller district CBC members Jack Ferguson and Joe Somday.

CTFW employee Montana Pakootas, a Colville tribal member, released another. 

“It was one of the coolest things I’ve done in a long time,” said Pakootas. “I think I made my grandparents happy today.”

The salmon, which averaged 10 to 15 pounds each, were surplus from Wells Hatchery and were moved with a transportation permit from the state of Washington. 

Previous to being released, the fish were tested for IHN, a virus deadly to trout and salmon.

The salmon were also implanted with PIT tags, said CTFW biologist Casey Baldwin, who noted those tags would provide some information concerning the salmon’s travel. 

But Baldwin noted the primary objective of the release was for cultural purposes, clarifying that the cultural releases of the salmon are efforts that run parallel to a phased approach for sustained salmon passage above the two largest dams on the Columbia River system.

“We’ve been working for several years on the what we call the phase one report for fish passage and reintroduction,” said Baldwin. “That has a scientific foundation for supporting fish passage. We looked at different donor stocks, risk assessment, habitat availability, lifecycle modeling. We did a number of studies for the report to move fish, to justify which fish, where, when, why, how many. We spent several years working on that. That was completed in June.”

While the cultural releases brings the spirit of the salmon back into the Upper Columbia and the people there, it’s through the implementation of the fish passage plan that tribal members hope will bring sustained passage – and the tribes continue to push forward in that, said Baldwin.

Along with the cultural release today CTFW released an additional 30 chinook salmon into Lake Rufus Woods in an experimental release, according to Baldwin. Those salmon each were fitted with acoustic tags to track salmon movement.

An additional experimental release is expected next week.

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