The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation has received $414,000 of state grant money for habitat restoration projects to aid with recovery efforts for steelhead trout.

The Washington Salmon Recovery Funding Board, through the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office, awarded the funds to the Yakama Nation for three habitat restoration projects along Ahtanum Creek and the Tieton and Klickitat rivers to help improve conditions for the area’s steelhead trout populations, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

In a Dec. 16 news release, the board noted that the growth of Washington cities and towns destroyed many of the places salmon used to live and has led to declining populations for decades. By the end of the 1990s, salmon, steelhead and bull trout populations were listed as threatened or endangered in about 75% of Washington.

John Marvin, a habitat biologist with the Yakama Nation, said the fish are part of the Yakama people’s cultural history and so deserve to be protected. The Yakama Nation has led restoration efforts in the Yakima Valley for decades, he added.

“This is a part of the Yakama Nation’s cultural history, with their hunter-gatherer societies,” he said. “This is just one more source of funding for our efforts.”

Restoration projects

The first Yakama Nation project, which received $120,000, will involve design work for restoring floodplain connectivity and increasing types of habitat along a mile of Ahtanum Creek in Union Gap. A second project, which received $90,000, will plan habitat restoration along a half-mile of the Tieton River near the Oak Creek Wildlife Area.

Marvin said the Tieton area had largely been written off as a possibility for fish recovery efforts because of the annual “Flip Flop” operations. But fish tagging in Prosser and subsequent tracking conducted by the Yakama Nation between 2014 and 2017 showed steelhead were using the area.

“The Yakama Nation found steelhead populations there, so we are guiding our restoration efforts by science,” Marvin said.

Marvin said development and agriculture industries have “cleaned and straightened” waterways, to the detriment of fish. So both restoration plans include placing logs in the waterways to give fish a place to rest, feed and hide from predators. The logs will slow the flow of the river, which will reduce erosion and allow small rocks to settle so that fish have areas to spawn. The logs will also change the flow of the river, creating riffles, pools and other varied habitats for the fish.

“We look at restoring aquatic conditions,” Marvin said. “Adding wood reintroduces complexity, because fish like varied environments.”

The Tieton plan also includes planting native trees and shrubs along the shoreline. Benefits include shade that will cool water for the fish and food for insects the fish eat. The root systems will keep soil from entering the water and covering the gravel the project will add to the area to help spawning efforts.

Marvin said the Nation’s plan is to use the funding to design the two projects in 2020, then complete them over the next four or five years.

The third project, receiving $204,000, will help restore the Klickitat River Fish Passage by replacing two undersized culverts with a bridge to open access for migrating fish in Piscoe Creek, a tributary to the river. The Yakama Nation will contribute $36,000 in a federal grant.

David Lindley, a habitat biologist for the Yakama Nation overseeing the project, said Piscoe Creek is a priority tributary crossed by Forest Road 80 a little more than a quarter-mile upstream from its confluence with the Klickitat River. The crossing has been a chronic road maintenance problem over the years because of frequent road washouts due to failed or blocked culverts during high flows. The original road design and maintenance needed to reopen and maintain the crossing has often impaired upstream fish passage conditions, he said.

Lindley added that reestablishing habitat connectivity will open more than 5.5 miles for spawning and rearing.

Ongoing efforts

The funding for the Yakama Nation projects was part of $26.1 million awarded by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board in December to county-based projects led by watershed-based groups including tribes, local governments, nonprofit organizations and citizens. Funding for the grants comes from the Legislature-authorized sale of state bonds and from the federal Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

Kaleen Cottingham, the conservation office’s director, said salmon recovery organizations and the board review projects for cost-effectiveness and to ensure they will benefit salmon.

“While salmon are not recovered yet, these grants have had a significant impact on slowing the decline of salmon, and in some cases helping to bring them close to recovery goals,” she said. “This is not easy work and change won’t happen quickly, but without these grants, it won’t happen at all.”

Lindley said the Yakama Nation Fisheries Program regularly pursues grants from the board to design and implement watershed enhancement activities that benefit salmonid species, including Mid-Columbia Steelhead and Spring Chinook, in the Klickitat Watershed. The grants are used to cost-share projects with the Bonneville Power Administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which also fund Yakama Nation efforts. The tribe typically donates materials, such as large wood or rocks, to support the projects.

The Yakama Nation has been awarded 14 grants from the board and has been a co-sponsor or collaborator on nine additional projects, Lindley said.

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.