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As the sun set over the upper Kachess River, a team of fish biologists searched pools to find tiny fish with the intention of giving them the opportunity to live another year.

Yakama Nation Fisheries, Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Kittitas Conservation Trust and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently completed their third season of rescuing juvenile bull trout from the river as it dries up towards the end of the summer. When the river dewaters, the fish become trapped in isolated pools and are at risk of death as the pools themselves dry up.

Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group Project Manager Connor Parrish explained said there are 15 remaining population groups of bull trout in the Yakima Basin. The trout are a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Out of those 15 groups, Parrish said approximately 12 of them are remaining stable.

“We monitor them yearly to check the status of these populations,” he said. “One of those populations exist in the upper Kachess River, and this population is very small. They only have about a mile and a half that’s accessible to them in the river environment. They don’t get a ton of fish going up there to spawn every year, and so it’s been struggling.”

Parrish explained that the Kachess bull trout population faces many challenges related to the construction of the reservoir, which inundated miles of what was originally river habitat for the population.

“That doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “It’s all underwater for a large portion of the year when the reservoir is up.”

Parrish said bull trout are unique in that they spend two to three years in the river environment after they’re born, before migrating out to a larger body of water like Lake Kachess. After spending a couple of years in the lake, they return to the river as adults to spawn.

“They need this river environment as a key and important part of their life history,” he said. “If anything happens to them during those years, it can be really detrimental to the overall population.”

Parrish explained that the upper Kachess River faces many issues related to habitat manipulation, most of which are a result of historic logging practices. Before the logging, he said the river was more confined between stands of old-growth forest. After the logging, the river lost those constraints. As a result, Parrish said the river spread out to the point where it lacks a defined stream channel.

“It spreads out all over the place,” he said. “That causes problems, because later in the year when there’s not as much water in the stream, large portions of the creek goes dry. In an average year, typically almost a mile of the stream dries up and that only leaves them little over half a mile of stream that they can live in.”

Although knowledge of the dewatering has existed for years, Parrish said stakeholders began to realize a few years ago that there was a way to out and rescue some of the fish in the areas that dry up. He said the fish are extremely small at this point in their lifespan, approximately 40 to 60 millimeters. Three years ago, team members would rescue the fish and move them upstream to an area that was safer from dewatering. Parrish said the initial efforts were successful, with approximately 800 fish rescued.

Last year, Parrish said the Yakama Nation had the idea to take a portion of the rescued fish and raise them in a hatchery environment. The fish would overwinter in the hatchery habitat and then be released the following June. By doing this, he said potential negative impacts such as overpopulation could be avoided as a result of moving all the fish to a relatively small stretch of upstream habitat.

“By the time they release them, they would be about the size of two-year old bull trout, which would be around the time they would migrate to Lake Kachess,” he said.

Because last year’s project spearheaded by Yakama Nation Fisheries was successful, Parrish said the effort has continued during this year’s collection process. Along with bull trout, he said the team will rescue any species that is at risk of dying, including cutthroat trout and sculpins.

Although the fish transportation serves as a short-term solution for the issue, Parrish said the long-term goal is to find a way to restore the river habitat for the bull trout.

“Maybe not so it stays watered year-round, but so at least some of the isolated pools can stay watered up so fish can survive in them,” he said. “Those fish can be more self-sustaining, and then when the water comes back up in the winter, spring and late fall, they can move back out to the lake. We like to call it a lifeboat operation. We’re saving these fish and trying to keep this population going while we work on long-term restoration goals to try and improve it so this population can be self-sustaining.”

Reporting for the DR since March 2018. Lover of campfires, black labs and good vibes. Proud Humboldt State alum!

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