Fisheries Biologist – WDFW Asotin Creek Project
An earlier blog post described the great resiliency of wild steelhead in Asotin Creek and noted that this resiliency is in part due to a combination of a variety factors: improved habitat quality, increased spill at hydroelectric facilities, good ocean conditions, and a great reduction in hatchery origin steelhead spawners, among others; not the least of which are the fish themselves! This is all true and we continue to sort out the relative impact of all of these factors to the abundance and recovery of wild steelhead in the Asotin Creek basin and the Pacific Northwest as a whole.
Considerable work has been done in the basin to assess the abundance, status and trends of steelhead in Asotin Creek and improve habitat, these efforts really started to pick up steam in the 1980’s through funding provided by US Fish & Wildlife Service’s still young Lower Snake River Compensation Plan (LSRCP). Early work under the LSRCP focused on estimating adult spawners and spawning distribution, and then followed up a few months later with juvenile abundance estimates that could be correlated with spawners. Similar work continues today in the previously mentioned National Marine Fisheries Service funded Intensively Monitored Watershed (IMW) and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA)-funded, WDFW implemented Asotin Creek Steelhead Monitoring Project.
In the early 1990’s Snake River salmon, steelhead and bull trout were in a perilous spot. Passage of adult fall, summer and spring Chinook at Lower Granite Dam were hitting rock bottom and subsequently listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1992, followed by Snake River steelhead in 1997, in response to petitioning from the public. It is in this same vein that a small group of landowners began collaborating with the Asotin County Conservation District and Fish, Wildlife and land management agencies on the Asotin Creek Model Watershed Plan. The model watershed plan was the first in Washington State and funded by BPA. It took a proactive approach to maintaining, enhancing and recovering fish and riparian habitat in Asotin Creek. Asotin Creek had long been impacted by human activities as well as acts of nature: catastrophic flooding and drought. As such, the Model Watershed Plan served as a guiding document for taking a holistic, “Ridgetop to Ridgetop” approach, encompassing all parts of the watershed, not just the streams. The mission statement reads: “Complete and implement an integrated plan for the Asotin Creek watershed which will meet landowner objectives and agency acceptance, in order to protect and enhance all resource bases with concern for long-term sustainability.”
During this period, limiting factors in the Asotin Creek subbasin were identified as high water temperatures, lack of Large Woody Debris (LWD), high sediment loads, and high fecal coliform counts. Given these limiting factors, the landowner steering committee and the technical staff assisting them knew that they may have to change the way they farm and ranch and adjust their operations to have a meaningful impact on the health of the watershed. Anyone close to farming and ranching knows that adapting practices and making big changes can be a challenging and slow process. But with such buy-in and leadership from well-respected neighbors, implementation throughout the watershed seemed possible.
Management prescriptions for the next 10+ years included Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) fencing of the riparian corridor, manure/feedlot management, riparian and windrow/field edge tree plantings, off-channel water source development, direct seeding and no till agriculture, crop rotations, increasing Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage, and development of sediment basins. Each of these approaches (and others not mentioned) were directed at reducing sediment delivery from the uplands by direct seeding fields and no till agriculture, increasing LWD recruitment and shade through fencing and riparian plantings and finding ways to keep livestock and their by-products out the creek. In other words, the plan directed its followers to actively engage in comprehensive watershed management. Still, even with a good plan it took engagement and participation of the local landowners as well as funding and incentives to encourage participation and effect change. The plan was accepted and embraced by the Northwest Planning and Conservation Council and resulted in commitments from the BPA, Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Washington Department of Ecology, as well as many other sources.
Twenty years later, it is safe to say extensive progress has been made implementing the model watershed plan. Currently, the Asotin Creek watershed has 11 active CREP contracts, protecting roughly 315 acres of riparian area, and cattle exclusion fencing along nearly 16 privately-owned stream miles, not to mention contracts currently pending approval. Water quality has improved greatly through reduced sediment delivery and riparian shading contributing critical shade and reducing overall water temperatures in the stream. Most of the low hanging fruit has been picked at this point, and set the stage for projects like the IMW to implement some smaller scale and more direct instream restoration actions. Similarly, the conservation district has recently launched a county-wide geomorphic assessment and planning effort, which will again re-visit limiting factors and will result in a comprehensive plan to address the remaining factors limiting wild steelhead and salmonid (Chinook and bull trout) recovery in the Asotin Creek basin and other independent, Snake River tributaries within the county.
The reality is that if the landowner steering committee and the model watershed plan had not been developed 20 years ago Asotin Creek and the steelhead population might be in a very different place and a different trajectory altogether. The model watershed plan is the foundation and the resulting habitat improvements built the base for all the other projects that came after including the current Fish-In and Fish-Out monitoring and the Intensively Monitored Watershed, both of which rely on cooperation and participation from private landowners to varying degrees.
In a watershed where the majority of land is in private ownership the solutions and the path forward must actually be collaborative and comprehensive to be successful. There is a strong legacy in Asotin County of stewardship and cooperation. That is not to say that wild steelhead recovery is eminent, we do still have a long way to go, but we can be sure that the habitat in Asotin Creek has been steadily improving and that certainly can’t hurt the steelhead population. We will continue to look into other factors limiting their recovery, and assess what can be done to move closer to recovery.
All too often plans are painstakingly developed and written only later be shelved, caught up in litigation or otherwise forgotten about. The Asotin Creek Model Watershed Plan continues to serve the county through the large and growing cost-share program the Conservation District has built off of that foundation formed 20 years ago. This work is important, but state and federal agencies and NGO’s cannot do it alone; we still need the help of concerned anglers, citizens and landowners alike. Conservation and recovery will always be more successful with broad alliances. If you care about wild steelhead wherever they roam, get involved. Contact your local biologists and ask how you can help or get involved; get involved with TU or a local fisheries enhancement group.