(I stole the photo of Camp Polk Meadow Preserve and Whychus Creek from the Deschutes Land Trust website. Photo credit: Russ McMillan.)
When the reintroduction effort began a major focus was the restoration of Whychus Creek, a tributary of the middle Deschutes. The thought was that steelhead in particular would target Whychus as they are not native to the Metolius and the Crooked River is blocked by Opal Springs Dam. Restoring Whychus Creek would also provide dramatically improved habitat for wild, native species, in particular redband trout. This restoration effort was spearheaded by the Deschutes Partnership who purchased sections of the creek for restoration, worked on restoring flows, and performed habitat improvement, along with state and federal agencies. It was and continues to be a long-term, expensive effort. Some progress has been made but there’s still a long way to go.
Like with the rest of the reintroduction effort, results on Whychus Creek to date have simply been disappointing. I’m working on a longer post on the status of the overall restoration effort, but Whychus Creek is a good example of the issues that still need to be addressed.
Over the past few years hundreds of thousands of hatchery spawned steelhead, both fry and smolts, have been planted in Whychus on an annual basis and only a handful of adults have returned. A spawning pair has yet to be found. One factor outside local control is the poor ocean conditions that have impacted steelhead returns throughout the Pacific Northwest. There are other factors as well.
Flows in Whychus Creek remain low, under 20 cfs at times, and water temperatures are still in violation of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality standards. Habitat restoration is still fairly new and more work needs to be done. There remains little viable spawning habitat above Alder Springs. There is an equally significant issue, however.
Recent fish surveys show a huge number of fish in the creek, around 6,400 per mile in some sections. These are 80% to 90% small hatchery fish, mostly fry that, hopefully, in a year will smolt and outmigrate. Equally concerning, there appears to be no improvement in the abundance or size of the native redband trout population.
The biologists involved with the effort I have talked to agree that after about 50 years of inbreeding the hatchery fish are so genetically compromised that they have a low survival rate. To use layman’s terms they are weak, stupid fish. The obvious concerns are that these fish are competing with wild, native fish for food and habitat and could potentially crossbreed if they stay in the creek. Genetic studies have shown no evidence of crossbreeding yet, but there is no denying that hatchery fish are sharing the same habitat and competing for food with wild, native fish. This issue is not confined to Whychus Creek. Hunreds of thousands of hatchery fish are also annually planted in the Crooked River and its tributaries.
I’m a supporter of the reintroduction effort but it seems time to make some significant changes to increase the odds of success and decrease the potential negative impacts of putting millions of genetically inferior hatchery fish into the upper Basin. The initial idea was that it would only take a handful of hatchery adults to return, spawn, and start recolonization. These fish would still have the genetic “right stuff”. Thus far, this approach has simply not produced viable results. I’ll post more on this soon, there are some intriguing ideas for delivering reintroduction success.