Draft plan unveiled to restore Chehalis River basin habitat

  • Mon Nov 18th, 2019 4:30pm
  • News

A team, including technical experts from the state departments of Fish & Wildlife and Ecology, the Quinault Indian Nation and the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, have drafted an aquatic species restoration plan designed to protect and restore salmon and other native aquatic species in the Chehalis River Basin.

The public is invited to review and comment on the draft restoration plan now through Jan. 14.

Actions taken under the plan will include protecting or restoring habitat along the banks of rivers and streams; removing fish barriers, such as undersized culverts; rebuilding off-channel habitat (oxbows and side channels off the main river); reconnecting the river to its floodplain and creating, restoring or enhancing wetlands, a statement from the Quinault Indian Nation says.

During the past 30 years, salmon runs have declined 80 percent in the Chehalis River Basin because of habitat degradation, development and climate change, according to a statement from Fish and Wildlife. The statement said, “By the end of the century, the basin’s spring Chinook salmon could become functionally extinct, with fish numbers dropping too low to sustain the population.”

“The Chehalis basin is one of the state’s only major river systems with no salmon species listed as threatened or endangered,” said Emelie McKain, the basin’s aquatic restoration plan manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We want to keep it that way by restoring and protecting their habitat.”

Phase 1 of the plan identifies initial priority reaches of Chehalis Basin rivers and tributaries and sets targets for number of river miles and acres of habitat to be restored.

“We appreciate the ambitious scale of the (plan) and the opportunity to join with our basin neighbors to reverse decades of habitat degradation and address the growing impacts from climate change,” Quinault Nation Vice President Tyson Johnston said. “We have a big mountain to climb and this first wave of proposed actions under the (plan) is an important first step. Comprehensive habitat restoration aimed at rebuilding our sacred salmon runs must happen regardless of other actions taken in the Chehalis Basin.”

The Quinault Nation is especially concerned about Chehalis River spring Chinook, which spend more time in-river than other salmon species and, as such, are more susceptible to increased summer water temperatures, according to the Quinault Indian Nation statement.

After forecasts for a second straight year of low salmon returns and lower-than-normal river flows, Quinault Nation fisheries managers last June decided to close the tribal fishery and reached out to the WDFW urging closure of all fisheries for spring Chinook entering the Chehalis River. State-managed fisheries for spring Chinook were closed in late June.

“We can’t control ocean conditions or low river levels. What we can control is fishing in the river and its tributaries and how hard we work to protect and restore freshwater habitat. The (plan) is critically important for spring Chinook which hold special significance for Quinault fishermen,” Johnston said.

McKain said the basin also is home to Washington’s largest diversity of amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders, including the federally endangered Oregon spotted frog.

Aside from lost and degraded habitat, climate change is causing more frequent and intense storms that scour aquatic habitat in the basin while droughts are becoming more common during the summer, keeping stream flows low and raising seasonal water temperatures to levels that can threaten salmon and other native aquatic species, read the WDFW statement.

The agencies say the draft restoration plan — with voluntary cooperation of willing landowners — identifies potential actions that offer the best chance to:

• Support healthy, harvestable salmon populations.

• Build robust, diverse populations of other native fish and aquatic species.

• Foster productive ecosystems more resilient to climate change and human-caused stressors.

The team of technical experts from the Quinault Indian Nation, Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, Washington departments of Fish and Wildlife and Ecology, and other entities who developed the draft plan worked with local farmers, foresters and conservationists, other state and federal agencies and local governments.

The team and the Chehalis Basin Board will use public comments to inform future phases of the plan’s development and implementation. The board was established by the state legislature to provide long-term oversight of the Chehalis Basin Strategy.

The draft plan is available online at http://chehalisbasinstrategy.com/asrp/asrp-phase-i-draft-plan/.