Support the Springer Revival

Introduction

Native Fish Society is working to ensure that the Rogue’s wild spring Chinook salmon continues on an upward trajectory and that the best-available science drives recovery actions. Our goal is to understand more about the implications of the operation and management of Lost Creek Dam and Reservoir on the early life history strategy of spring Chinook, ensure the 1.7 million hatchery smolts released as mitigation for the dam do not negatively impact wild populations, identify opportunities to expand and enhance habitat for spring Chinook, and build a coalition of local and regional stakeholders that are invested in continuing to recover wild spring Chinook salmon in the watershed.

Goals

  1. Support actions in the management of Rogue River’s wild spring Chinook salmon that contribute to the recovery of naturally produced populations.
  2. Minimize genetic and ecological risks hatchery spring Chinook have on wild populations.
  3. Understand more about the genetic composition and potential introgression of Rogue Chinook salmon to better characterize the distribution and abundance of wild populations across the watershed.
  4. Identify and support habitat protection and restoration opportunities throughout the watershed to benefit wild spring Chinook, particularly in the uppermost portion of their historical habitat, and identify areas where spring Chinook can volitionally reach previously accessible, suitable upstream habitat.

Background

Southern Oregon’s Rogue River is home to one of the most famous Chinook salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest. Of these wild Chinook, the “Springers” are the crown jewel. It is their unique life history that sets these fish apart from neighboring populations, which are comprised of later returning, fall-run Chinook salmon. Between late winter and early summer, chrome-bright Springers push through freshets upstream to the cool, deep pools of the upper Rogue River. They will hold in those pools, sometimes up to 5 months, until they are ready to spawn.

Historically, wild Springers dominated anadromous fish returns to the upper part of the Rogue River watershed, although over the last 40 years their population has declined, with the lowest returns in the 1990s (pg 17, ODFW CHS Conservation Plan). After more than a century of commercial and recreational harvest, habitat degradation from agriculture and mining, and loss of access to historic habitat from dam construction – wild spring Chinook are a fraction of their former numbers.

While humans have heavily impacted the Rogue River over the last century, the most tangible, physical impact to spring Chinook came when Lost Creek Dam was constructed in 1977 for flood control and fisheries enhancement. The dam was built without fish passage and cut off spring Chinook from 20 miles, roughly one-third, of their critical spawning habitat. The 1980s and 1990s marked two decades of decline in wild spring Chinook abundance in the Rogue. In the early 1990s, the wild population plummeted. Where an average of 28,000 wild fish had returned before Lost Creek Dam, the average run in the 1990s was just 7,600 fish.

ODFW’s foremost priority in the Rogue is to protect and enhance wild spring Chinook populations. Responding to the declining population, in 2004 ODFW convened a public advisory committee to develop a conservation plan to preserve and recover the struggling wild fish. Native Fish Society’s Rogue River Steward, Peter Tronquet, served on the committee, alongside representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, NOAA Fisheries, and sport-fishing guides from the upper and lower river. After 25 meetings over two years, the committee had a plan to save the Rogue River spring Chinook.

Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted the plan in 2007. Following the advisory committee’s recommendations, the commission modified sport-fishing regulations, giving preferential treatment to early-run Chinook with the hope of achieving a 10-Year average return of 15,000 wild adult fish. The Rogue Spring Chinook Conservation Plan was followed by another conservation plan for Fall Chinook in the Rogue Species Management Unit, which was formally adopted in 2013. Between these plans, preferential treatment was given to manage the Rogue River to conserve spring chinook. This agreement includes congressionally authorized block storage water that among its many goals, include minimizing pre-spawn morality among spring and fall Chinook, assist spring Chinook migration up river at critical times, minimize dewatering of juveniles, and establish a cooperative relationship between Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps to ensure that sufficient flows are available during redd development and egg incubation.

In spite of drought, El Niño, and three of the hottest years on record, the average wild Chinook return since the adoption of the plan is 8,960 and climbing. In 2015, an estimated 15,300 adult wild fish returned, surpassing the desired status for the first time since the Conservation Plan was adopted, and in 2016 returns are estimated at 9,563.

Thanks to a wave restoration actions taken in the Rogue, all of its native fish populations have benefitted in the last decade from the removal of several obsolete dams (Gold Ray Dam, Gold Hill Dam, Savage Rapids Dam, and Elk Creek Dam), and we are witnessing in real time how grassroots advocacy and science-based management can bring back a wild salmon population. A wild, native fish population is recovering, and the Rogue managers, ODFW biologists, members of the advisory committee, Rogue River Steward Peter Tronquet, and the many organizations working to protect and restore the Rogue deserve our gratitude for protecting the diversity of this iconic species.

A 10 year review of the Spring Chinook Conservation Plan is ongoing and scheduled for early 2018, and we will continue to be engaged in evaluating the actions that have benefited the recovering population, while looking for opportunities to ensure they remain viable into the future.

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