The Lostine River flowed gently Thursday afternoon through Wolfe Ranch near Wallowa, where a truck hauling young coho salmon backed slowly down a gravel drive to the water’s edge.
For the first time in 31 years, coho were released into the Grande Ronde Basin, following a ceremony hosted by the Nez Perce Tribe and Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife. Approximately 50 people gathered to celebrate the occasion, marking a major milestone in the effort to restore a once-abundant fishery.
Guests watched from just upstream of the tribe’s Lostine salmon weir as a thick hose connected to the tanker belched tens of thousands of finger-size smolts into the river. Silver flashes darted around the stream bank before the fish eventually took to the current and began their long journey to the Pacific Ocean.
All together, eight trucks transported half a million coho — or kállay in the Nez Perce language — to the Lostine River from the ODFW hatchery at Cascade Locks where they were reared. Tribal officials said it was an historic event, and the culmination of decades of work.
“It is a great honor to be here and serve my people,” said Quincy Ellenwood, a member of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. “We do this for the love we have of our culture.”
According to tribal estimates, the number of coho that used to return to the Grande Ronde exceeded 20,000 adults in the late 1800s. Most of those fish would migrate into the Lostine and Wallowa rivers, but by the 1980s a combination of factors drove the local population to extinction. Those factors included overfishing, changes in the habitat and introduction of hydro dams on the main stem of the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Becky Johnson, who oversees tribal hatcheries for the Nez Perce fisheries department, said they received funding from the Bonneville Power Administration in 1988 to study how they could reintroduce coho to the basin.
“Now, we’re in the process of putting fish back to where they used to be,” Johnson said.
Once the adults return, Johnson said they will collect some to use as broodstock to raise future generations of hatchery-reared coho. Some may return to spawn naturally in the river.
The tribe, which co-manages the fishery with ODFW, first broached the subject in 1996. But Bruce Eddy, East Region manager for ODFW, said the agency was simply too overwhelmed trying to preserve chinook salmon and steelhead, which had been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Thursday’s reintroduction of coho is not only a huge accomplishment in its own right, Eddy said, but goes to show how far fish conservation has come in recent decades.
“We’re finally getting our head above water,” Eddy said. “It’s nice to be able to spend time on something other than chinook and summer steelhead.”
Bringing coho back to the Grande Ronde is just the latest in a series of projects carried out by Northwest tribes across the Columbia Basin. The Nez Perce also maintains a coho program on the Clearwater River in Idaho, while the Yakama Nation is working to restore the species on the upper Columbia.
Both programs have successfully rebuilt naturally spawning coho populations, which is what Johnson said they ultimately hope to do on the Lostine.
Aaron Penney, hatchery complex manager for the Nez Perce on the Clearwater River, said he joined the program as a college intern to help restore lost fisheries. Fishing is a big part of the Nez Perce culture, he said, and ties them to the land.
“Over the past 100 years, we’ve seen places like the Lostine where the populations have declined or gone extinct,” Penney said. “It’s like losing part of your soul.”
Chuck Axtell, a tribal elder and member of the Seven Drums religion, led a series of prayers and songs to bless the fish on their way to the ocean and back. As an elder, he said it is a blessing to see those fish come back.
“The animals, they are us. They are our people,” Axtell said. “We take care of each other.”
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.