Yurok tribe revives ancestral lands by restoring salmon runs, protecting wildlife
October 1, 2018
San Francisco Chronicle By Peter Fimrite
HYAMPOM, Trinity County — The giant Douglas fir hit the water with a great splash just as a powerful gust of wind from the Chinook helicopter rotors blew across the river, forcing Aaron Martin and his fellow workers to hold their helmets and turn their backs against the gust.
“That’s exactly where we want it,” yelled Martin, a habitat restoration biologist for the Yurok Indian tribe, holding up two thumbs as the chopper released the 150-foot-tall tree from its cable and thwap-thwapped away to pick up more timber.
The charred trunk, weighing as much as 25,000 pounds, was one of 300 fire-damaged trees that the tribe and its partners strategically placed in the South Fork of the Trinity River this past week in an attempt to alter the current, scour out accumulated sediment and restore long-lost salmon habitat in the river.
The 92-mile South Fork is the longest un-dammed stream in California and a primary tributary of the Klamath River, which used to froth yearly with spring-run chinook, a staple of the Yurok diet for thousands of years until European settlers arrived in North America, logged the forests and built dams that nearly wiped them out.
The project, on this wild and scenic stretch of the Trinity, is outside the Yurok reservation, which stretches 44 miles from the mouth of the Klamath, but the two rivers converge at the edge of Yurok land and together support the largest salmon run in California outside of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta system.
“We’re trying to help restore balance to the river,” Martin said of the plan, developed over the past three years with help from the Watershed and Research Training Center in Hayfork (Trinity County), the U.S. Forest Service and local land owners. “We’re adding a natural element and letting nature take its course.”
The wood placement project, which is being paid for using about $800,000 in grants, is not only the largest river restoration ever undertaken by the Yuroks, but also an important part of their effort to bring back a culture and heritage that was largely taken away over the past two centuries.
Spring-run chinook, “Nue-mee ney-puy” in the Yurok language, are so named because they head up the Klamath in the spring — between late March and early June — to complete their three-year life span by breeding in cold tributaries, preferably high in the mountains. The species, also known as king salmon, live in the river throughout the summer, storing up fat, and are highly prized for their rich flavor.
More than 12,000 spring-run chinook once migrated annually up the South Fork of the Trinity, where it wasn’t unheard of for people to reel in 200 fish from a single pond. Then, in 1964, a catastrophic storm and flood caused mud slides on the surrounding hills and filled the river with vast quantities of sediment.
The dirt was loose because loggers had clear-cut the surrounding forests in the 1950s and early 1960s, leaving nothing to hold the steep ridges next to the river in place. Silt poured into the river, choking off the salmon spawning grounds and filling up the cold pools salmon need to survive. Fishery biologists said water diversions and pollution from illegal marijuana farms have made the situation worse.
Last summer, only 12 chinook were seen in the river, and the year before only 15 fish were counted by surveyors. The spring salmon run as a whole is less than 1 percent of its former size. The wild coho and steelhead runs are not doing any better.
“We’re at the brink of extinction for this species, so it’s critically important that we do something,” said D.J. Bandrowski, project engineer for the Yurok. “The tribe relies on the spring chinook to help feed their families. This is widely important for the tribe and its people.”
Engineers and biologists used thousands of aerial photographs to map the river. Bandrowski said a degraded 5-mile stretch was chosen for the restoration project. A computer model was used to figure out where woody debris would do the most good.
Columbia Helicopters used one of their aptly named Chinooks to carry the logs to the project site and lower them by cable into place.
The idea, Bandrowski said, is to position the logs so that they divert water, spread out the sediment, create gravel bars, wetlands on the banks and deep cold-water ponds where juvenile fish can shelter during the hot summer months and fatten up on bugs.
“What we’re building is a complex architecture, an arrangement of individual wood pieces that are interlocking together (and) will evolve over time,” Bandrowski said, pointing out one crisscrossing log pile wedged between rock outcroppings that he dubbed “Downtown.”
The ambitious project is one of many in the area spearheaded by the Yurok people who, as much as any other American Indian tribe, have dedicated themselves over the past decade to the restoration of their ancestral homeland, including the wildlife that once thrived along the Klamath River basin. They are key players in the planned removal of four dams on the Klamath.
The Yurok are the largest tribe in the state, with 5,600 members living in and around the reservation, which encompasses 57,000 acres. They have a small casino with only a few dozen slot machines, a hotel and restaurant, but opioid addiction has plagued the tribe, which sued 20 drug companies this year for pushing on the tribe their habit-forming wares and causing a national epidemic.
At one time, there were more than 50 Yurok villages covering about 500,000 acres and 50 miles of coastline. The tribe members, who called themselves Oohl, or Indian people, were renowned for fishing, canoe making, basket weaving, story telling and dancing.
The Yurok were first visited by the Spanish in the 1500s and later by American fur traders and trappers, including Jedediah Smith, who raved about the abundant wildlife along the 250-mile-long Klamath River. In 1850, gold miners moved in, bringing with them disease and violence. The Yurok population declined by 75 percent, and the remaining Indians were forcibly relocated to a reservation in 1855.
Besides efforts to restore their traditional dances, preserve their historic regalia and revive their language, the tribe has recently accelerated a campaign to revitalize the natural landscape, introduce fire and protect the wildlife on their ancestral lands, including a proposal to reintroduce the California condor.
It is the fish, however, that tribal biologists say are key, not just for the Yurok, but also for the Karuk and Hoopa Valley tribes, which hold traditional fishing rights on the Klamath. The three tribes have long been part of the fish-versus-farms battle that has raged as reduced rain and snow has cut the amount of water available for spawning fish.
The steady degradation of the watershed and fish is why the Yurok started a salmon restoration project 10 years ago on the main stem of the Trinity and expanded it this past week into this remote, scenic stretch of river.
“Spring chinook are a valuable species and highly prized by all the tribes, including the Yurok,” Martin said. “This is a very natural way that we can try to help. It’s a start, a step.”
Fishing the North Coast: Klamath River seeing good return of kings
September 26, 2018
Eureka Times Standard By Kenny Priest
In case you haven’t heard, the Klamath River is chocked full of salmon. And it has been for quite a few weeks now. What makes this story remarkable is this is coming on the heels of the river being completely closed to fishing after Aug. 15 last year due to the projected low returns. The CDFW predicted roughly 93,500 fall-run adults were set to return this year, and it appears they may have been right. On average, 122,000 adult fall-run kings return to spawn. In 2017, only 18,410 were predicted, which was the lowest on record.
Turns out 31,838 actually returned, which provided some hope for this year. The first sign that we knew this could potentially be a good year was back in June. Towards the end of that month the estuary was loaded with kings, likely a mixture of springers and early fall-run salmon. The fishing was as good as I’ve ever seen for about six weeks straight. Around the middle of August the fall run started to push upriver, and that’s when the real party started. And it’s been happening ever since.
I’m sure there’s all kinds of scientific reasons for the season we’re having, but a couple stand out.
First, the number of jacks that returned to the Klamath last year was sizable, 21,903 to be exact. History tells us when we have a good return of jacks, the following year should see a healthy return of three year-olds. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing. The condition and placement of the river mouth was much improved this year. It has started to move back towards the north and was much shorter. This allowed for the channel to remain deep and not sand over. Another factor that could have played a part is the extra water coming down from the Trinity. Flows went from 450 to 700 cfs back in July due to emergency releases out of Lewiston due to the Carr fire. Flows were just recently adjusted back down to 450. Whatever the reasons, the Klamath has made a tremendous recovery. And all the signs are pointing towards some epic fishing in the coming years.
As a reminder, the fall Chinook quota was met on the lower Klamath River on Wednesday, Sept. 12. Fishing is still open from the Hwy. 96 bridge in Weitchpec to the estuary, with the daily bag limit being two jacks (Chinook less than 22 inches) Fishing is
closed from 100 yards around the river mouth (spit area). The quota on the Upper Klamath should remain open until Oct. 10. Closing dates for the Trinity have yet to be determined. Anglers may keep track of the status of open and closed sections of the
Klamath and Trinity rivers by calling 800-564-6479.
Feather River salmon returns expected to be high
September 25, 2018
Daily Democrat /By Risa Johnso
With the fish ladder gates opened on Friday, Feather River Fish Hatchery crews expect to see thousands of springrun and fall-run Chinook salmon return home in the coming weeks.
Fish Hatchery Manager Penny Crawshaw said a solid fishing season out in the ocean was a good indication that there would be high returns this year. Crawshaw also said that the river temperature was optimal for the fish.
Chinook salmon are wired to return to the place they were born to spawn, and then they die. They have a 3-5 year life span.
Crawshaw said that they hatchery had “quite a few” human visitors on Friday, as the fish ladder opened in the morning. The hatchery is operated by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
About 3,200 spring-run salmon came to the hatchery in the spring and she hopes to see a little more than 3,000 spring-run Salmon return. As the name implies, fall run salmon return later, so Crawshaw didn’t have an estimate of how many were expected just yet.
She said that the spring-run salmon hang around in the Feather River after arriving in spring and typically spawn about two and a half weeks before fall run salmon do. Fall-run salmon are just beginning to arrive.
All spring-run salmon are tagged when they first arrive at the hatchery, while about 25 percent of the fall-run population is tagged, Crawshaw said. There is a greater focus on tracking spring-run salmon because the species is endangered.
There are a couple of new features at the hatchery this year, including a new scanning apparatus which counts the fish as they come up the ladder.
Salmon feeding ground on Ten Mile River is a ‘win-win’
September 24, 2018
Fort Bragg Advocate-News By Michelle Blackwell
Work is nearly complete on a project to create a more salmon-friendly environment on the South Fork of the Ten Mile River.
Four sections of the South Fork have been outfitted with engineered log jams, with a seasonal pond built south of the river to capture rainwater. These attributes are designed to mimic historic flows and give young salmon places to shelter as they reach maturity.
“It took five years of planning and two months of construction to reach this point,” said Dave Wright, project manager for The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
Planning meant securing funding, getting permits from a half dozen or so agencies, and extensive scientific review from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Campbell Timberland Management, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Marin Fisheries Service, Stillwater Sciences, and Prunuske Chatham, an environmental consulting firm based in Sebastopol that designed the project and oversaw permitting.
The result is a benchmark riparian restoration program that is the first of its kind.
Wright explained, “The log jams, split channels and seasonal ponds create edge habitat that allows the juvenile fish to get out of the main stream to feed and hide. Currently about 200 salmon return to the South Fork. Each salmon averages 3500 eggs, of which 50 percent emerge. Marine survival is two percent. Giving the juveniles space and resources to fatten up will increase their survival rate and return.”
This project created log jams at four locations. The Nature Conservancy has identified 15 to 16 more sites where they hope to repeat this process in the coming years. “Now that we have gotten the major agencies and scientific organizations signed off on the concept, the next sites should go faster,” said Wright.
Funding will also play a role in adding sites. California Fish and Wildlife’s Fisheries Restoration Grant Program, tasked with funding projects that restore anadromous salmonid habitat in coastal areas, contributed $1.7 million for this project in 2015. The S. L. Gimbel Foundation provided an additional $1 million.
Construction of the log jams required the contractor, Wylatti Resource Management, which recently purchased Geo Aggregates north of Fort Bragg, to harvest trees, sharpen them like pencils and then use a vibrating plate mounted on a bulldozer to push them 15 to 20 feet below ground at various angles. Wylatti also moved previously felled trees into strategic locations along the river. Brian Hurt of Wylatti said, “It was a good project that created local jobs.”
Landscape architect Mike Jensen of Prunuske Chatham explained, “the hammerhead tree, so named because it will force water into the pond during heavy rains, fell over in a wind storm near the South Fork. It has a root wad of 13 feet and the trunk is 4×7 feet. It took three pieces of equipment to maneuver it into a split channel near the seasonal pond. The juvenile fish will follow the flow into the pond and feast on the buffet of insects that are flooded out from the rains.”
Samara Restorations of McKinleyville has started replanting areas disturbed during construction with local willows, alders, ash and maple trees as well as two dozen types of shrubs, vines and grasses. Restoration work will be completed during the upcoming rainy season.
Trout Unlimited is tasked with designing the monitoring program. There will be ample opportunities for other agencies and projects with similar aims to tour the project site as they plan their own restoration projects. A two-day seminar is planned this fall to show off the project to fishery restoration professionals. If all goes as planned, Fort Bragg will enjoy more fish in our local waters and touring scientists will harvest some useful ideas for restoration in the future.
Threatened spring-run chinook salmon are sparse this year
September 24, 2018
Chico Enterprise Record By Steve Schoonover
The rare spring-run chinook salmon is rarer than usual this year, according to counts in the three streams that support the bulk of the wild fish left in the Sacramento River system.
In Butte Creek, a snorkel survey counted 2,118 fish this year, according to Colin Purdy, who supervises the count for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. That’s less than half the average since 1989 of 4,427 fish.
“It is low unfortunately,” he said, “but it’s better than last year.”
In 2017, only 950 fish were counted.
The record was in 2001, when the carcass survey turned up 18,312 fish.
The carcass survey is the second count Fish and Wildlife does of the salmon in Butte Creek, and is made possible by the lifecycle of the fish.
The spring-run fish return from the ocean in spring, almost always to the streams where they were born. They head far upstream into the foothills and spend the summer in deep, cool pools of water, before spawning in the fall. After they spawn, they die. Their offspring will later head downstream and out to the ocean, spending two or three years there before returning to complete the cycle.
As a result of the lifecycle, the creeks are full of dead fish after the spawning cycle ends. The nutrients of their bodies sustain a number of birds, animals and other fish, and enrich the food value of the water in the creeks.
The dead fish are also easy to count. Fish and Wildlife technicians will walk the creek after the spawn and count the carcasses, marking each one so it isn’t counted twice.
Purdy said in years when there are a lot of fish, the carcass count is far more accurate than the snorkel count. But in a low year like this one, the snorkel count is probably pretty accurate.
He said as of Friday, spawning hadn’t started in the creek, but he expected this week to see the female fish building the redds where they will lay their eggs. Male fish will then spray their sperm on the egg masses, and the new generation will begin.
The spring-run used to be the largest of the chinook runs in the Central Valley. But construction of dams like Shasta and Oroville blocked access to the higher-elevation cool water the fish need to survive the summer, and the numbers dropped. The spring-run is now listed as threatened on both the state and federal endangered species lists.
Deer and Mill creeks
Two eastern Tehama County creeks support most of the spring-run salmon that don’t head up Butte Creek, and this year, their numbers are terribly low.
In Mill Creek, just 51 salmon were counted, according to Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist Matt Johnson. That’s the worst ever, in a count that goes back to 1970. In Deer Creek, there were 159 fish, about the third lowest on record.
“I think we are seeing the continued effects of the severe drought we were in,” Johnson said.
He explained that when the fish returning this year were born, they had really poor conditions in the fresh water, with low levels of warm water. Then when they got to the ocean, the water there was warmer than usual, which isn’t good for the fish. “It was basically a double whammy.”
If there is good news in Tehama County, it’s that the new fish ladder around Lower Deer Creek Falls appears to be a success.
The falls, about 35 miles upstream from the Sacramento River, are a 15-foot barrier to fish moving upstream. A fish ladder was built around the falls in the 1940s, but it was steep and didn’t work well. Johnson said most of the spring-run in Deer Creek spawned in areas below the falls.
However in 2016 and 2017, a new, longer ladder with more, shallower steps was completed, and this year the snorkel survey found about 73 percent of the spring-run in the creek were upstream from the falls.
The counts are done differently on Deer and Mill creeks. The official count is done by video taken at a station the fish swim past on their way upstream.
Johnson said he was hoping for a recovery in the number of fish next year. “The conditions for next year’s returning fish look better,” he said.