WALLOWA — When he first joined the board of the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Homeland Project more than 20 years ago, Joe McCormack dreamed of restoring the Tamkaliks grounds to their native condition. Today, some of the Wallowa County resident’s dream is coming true.

Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries have started a half-million-dollar project on the Tamkaliks grounds that provides habitat for juvenile salmon and other fish, and will restore native plants to the Tamkaliks landscape.

“We’re hoping this will represent what the river had originally been like, including a lot of braided channels,” said McCormack, who works for Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries. “We need this kind of thing here, if we want coho and lamprey and the other species that we are trying to reintroduce to prevail.”

The $500,000 NPTF project, funded by both the Grande Ronde Model Watershed through the Bonneville Power Administration, and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, got started in early January. It includes a total of about 10 acres of the 320-acre Homeland Project (Tamkaliks) property just north of Wallowa.

Work started in early January 2021. The first phase — constructing side channels along the Wallowa River and planting willows and other native plants on the banks and floodplain — will conclude in March. Camas and tule reeds, important to Nez Perce as foods and in their culture, will be included in the reintroduced native vegetation, said project director and Nez Perce Fisheries biologist Katie Frenyea.

The side channels, which vary from about 3 feet to more than 6 feet deep, are designed to be rearing habitat for juvenile steelhead, coho salmon and spring Chinook salmon, Frenyea said.

“The young fish need a place to get out of the faster water in the main river channel and rest. The Wallowa River is almost like a flume here,” she said. “The side channels will provide places to eat, be safe from predators, rest, and even provide a place for young fish to over-winter.”

The alcoves — deeper pools where the channels and also an irrigation ditch rejoin the river — “… will be heavily vegetated to provide a lot of cover and good rearing opportunities,” Frenyea said.

“This project could also help lamprey, if they decide to use it,” Nez Perce Fisheries biologist Montana Pagano said.

The NPTF already have reintroduced lamprey into the Wallowa River System, releasing adults at the Wallowa’s confluence with the Minam River for at least the past two years.

The quiet water in deeper alcoves would trap fine sediment and provide places for young lamprey to spend up to their first seven years as ammocoetes — larvae that live in soft sediments as filter feeders — before transforming into eel-like fish and migrating to the ocean, she said.

“Potentially, the NPTF lamprey program may consider releasing lamprey directly into this project reach,” Pagano said.

Today the newly excavated channels look barren. But when the project is completed, the 120 Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees that are now stacked at the east end of the project will be secured in the channels to provide both short-term bank stability and fish habitat. Smaller woody debris will be added as additional channels provide hiding cover and quiet waters for juvenile fish.

“It’s not a place you’ll really want to use as a swimming hole,” Frenyea said. “There will be lots of wood in the channels, especially in the deeper alcoves.”

Other logs and smaller debris will be placed on the project’s higher ground, termed a “roughened floodplain.”

The topography and location of woody debris on the floodplain, have been carefully designed by project engineer Jeff Fealko, of Rio Applied Science and Engineering. He also designed the side channels. The larger logs on the floodplain will be partly buried to help anchor them in place, and their orientations will help slow and direct overland flow of any floodwaters. The roughened floodplain will also be the likely place to propagate camas, Frenyea said.

Wetland areas adjacent to the floodplains will be home to native cattails and tule reeds.

The woody debris and large wood placement will occur in the first phase of construction, Fealko said. This summer, during the second phase from July 15-Aug. 15, log structures will be placed at the side channels inlets where they interact with the main Wallowa River. The side channels will be connected to the Wallowa at that time,” Fealko, said.

He said that these structures are important, providing near bank cover and inviting fish to explore the slower water and protective habitat within the side channels.

“Boulder clusters placed in the river at channel entries will also help break up the river’s flow and help the fish find this new channel,” Frenyea said.

Fealko noted that the project will help reconnect the Wallowa River with its flood plain.

“It will allow the groundwater from the base of Tick Hill to interact with the channels, and provide thermal buffering,” he said. “And this means that in the winter, the channels will be warmer than the river and in the summer, they’ll be cooler, which are both beneficial to juvenile salmonids.”

The side channels and floodplain are designed so that there is no overall impact on flooding in the Wallowa River, Fealko said.

“We modeled flow for a 100-year flood event (a flood volume that has a 1% chance of happening in any given year) before and after the channels are constructed,” he said. “There’s no effect on flood-water elevations.”

But, he added, allowing Wallowa River floodwaters to cover the project area might help decrease the impact of short-term floods farther downstream.

“This project has been a long time coming,” said Angela Bombaci, Homeland Project executive director. “We’ve done some restoration, including plantings along the former irrigation ditch with the help of volunteers Wylie Frei and Craig McKienney. But this work by the Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries is a huge step toward bringing this place back to its potential as habitat for plants, animals and fish — the Wallowa Homeland grounds are offered as a peaceful refuge for all species, including people.”

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