Nisqually River Chinook Recovery Efforts

By David A. Troutt, Natural Resources Director for the Nisqually Indian Tribe.

Nisqually Chinook and the Endangered Species Act

Almost daily, newspaper headlines alert us to the decline of our salmon stocks and the pending decision by the federal government to list many of them as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). State, tribal, federal, and local governments are now trying to develop plans to halt this decline and help salmon recover to levels that can support commercial and recreational fishing. Undoubtedly, these efforts will come down to implementation by the local watershed communities and those people with the site-specific knowledge to turn plans into actions. The Nisqually Land Trust is in a position to take an active role in this effort and play a major part in salmon recovery in the Nisqually River.

Man and Fish

The ESA as it relates to salmon is administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). In the winter of 1997 NMFS made an initial determination that all of the various Puget Sound chinook salmon stocks form a single Evolutionary Significant Unit (ESU; in simple terms, all Puget Sound chinook are similar enough genetically to be considered a single species) and should be considered threatened. The final determination is due by March of 1999 and will likely confirm the original proposal. It is important to understand that no river’s chinook population is being listed individually. This means that although the Nisqually River chinook is not specifically singled out, the Nisqually will play a vital role in the recovery of the entire ESU.

The Nisqually River supports five species of Pacific salmon–chinook, coho, pink, chum, and steelhead–as well as sea-run cutthroat trout. These species have many common requirements and some very specific habitat conditions that are important to consider in recovery plans. All, for example, need clean, cool water, a stable environment, plentiful food supplies, and clean gravel. The Nisqually Indian Tribe is taking the lead in developing recovery plans for the chinook, working with the members of the Nisqually River Council and others to develop a basin-specific approach that addresses issues in the Nisqually River and proposes solutions to restore and recover the natural population. The Tribe is also considering changes to its overall management approach, including its hatchery programs and the way it harvests fish. These changes will make sense only if the habitat is protected or restored, so that naturally-produced chinook have a “home” when they return from their arduous ocean journey.

The Role of the NLT in Salmon Survival

House Bill 2496 has enabled the tribe to study the habitat factors affecting salmon survival and propose a list of projects to correct problems in a scientific and cost-effective manner. Identifying and executing such projects will be crucial to salmon recovery in the basin and an area in which the NLT can play a large and important role.

These projects might include voluntary protective actions by private landowners, restoration of critical habitats, and acquisition of important areas to prevent future damage. As the Tribe and others identify acquisition targets and sources of funding to accomplish such transactions, the Land Trust could serve as the owner and steward of these lands in a manner consistent with salmon restoration. Acquisitions might be made in the form of conservation easements or fee-simple purchases. Trust lands might also present restoration opportunities. In either case, properties controlled by the Trust will play a major role in salmon recovery in the Basin.

Beaver Falls

Although it appears that a significant amount of federal and state funding might be available to accomplish these kinds of activities, it is important for NLT members to keep in mind two key limitations. The first is that most such funds for habitat projects will require a local match of anywhere from 10 to 50 percent, depending on the funding source and the type of project. This presents a tremendous challenge to our membership. To take advantage of these opportunities, continuing financial support of the NLT is critical. Membership dues and increased support of our fundraising activities will determine how large a role the NLT can play in the ESA recovery phase.

Secondly, the state and federal commitment to funding ESA activities will not last forever, but the positive impacts of the NLT’s activities will! It is vital for the long-term survival of salmon everywhere that concerned citizens continue to support local efforts after they lose political popularity among elected officials. Your support of the NLT will have results that survive far beyond the next election.

If salmon are to be restored to levels that support the fishermen and communities that depend so heavily on them, it must be done with the participation of the watershed residents. We cannot count on regulations alone; we need to work together with a common vision. It is going to take people willing to learn what to do to help fish and then doing the right thing on their lands. It is also going to take volunteer groups like the NLT actively protecting critical habitats through acquisition. Finally, it is going to take concerned citizens throughout Puget Sound following the lead of the Nisqually Basin community.