Klamath Dams Removal, Trout Genetics, and ODFW Management

A very nice “Cascades Rainbow” from 2019, bigger than most steelhead I’ve caught on the Deschutes.

A portion of the revenue from every fishing license goes into ODFW’s Restoration & Enhancement program, funds that are to be spent on projects that benefit anglers.  Spending is controlled by an independent board where I have been a member for over 6 years.  By statute, most dollars are spent on hatcheries and related projects, but we support other efforts as well, including some pure research.  Research projects are a small proportion of the total as they typically do not show direct and immediate angler benefit, but we may fund them if we can see a longer term benefit. 

Last week I saw the results of one such research project and believe there could be clear angler benefit.  If you are at all interested in the impending removal of the four impassable dams on the Klamath River (the largest dam removal project in US history), love fishing in the Klamath Basin as I do, want to see the reintroduction of anadromous species in the Upper Klamath Basin, and are sometimes frustrated with ODFW, then you should read on.

Oregon State University is the home of the State Fisheries Genomics Lab which conducts genetics research to help with the formulation of science-based policy.  Stanley Piotrowski is working on his master’s degree in Fisheries Science and is analyzing the genetics of Klamath River Basin trout, both in the upper basin in Oregon and the lower basin in California.  ODFW’s R&E board funded this research, and I was invited to watch his thesis defense online last week, titled “Characterizing Neutral and Adaptive Genetic Diversity of Rainbow and Redband Trout in the Klamath Basin Before Dam Removal.”

It is important to note that while I read scientific research and frequently talk to fish biologists, I am not a scientist.  While I am confident in my understanding of the broad outline of Stanley’s talk, I have no idea how to interpret some of the detailed genomic data.  I look forward to his thesis being published and made available on the Genomics Lab website.

At the broadest level, Stanley confirmed what most would assume.  While all rainbow and redband trout in the Klamath Basin are genetically similar, there are subpopulations in various watersheds.  Some of these are distinct while others are a mixture.  A few of these subgroups are the result of geographic isolation, for example in the Upper Williamson River above an impassable waterfall, while others are not.  Williamson and Wood River fish share distinct genetic traits while nearby Sprague River fish are a mix of different subpopulations.

Most importantly for this post, “Cascade rainbows” have important genetic markers not substantially present in inland redbands.  Klamath Lake is fed by springs and streams that drain off the east side of the Cascades into the western part of the lake.  Conversely, it is also fed by more inland waters flowing into the eastern part of the lake.

While it is unknown precisely why some rainbow and redband trout become anadromous, previous studies have identified a set of genes typically present in steelhead.  Trout with these markers will not necessarily migrate to the ocean if given the opportunity, but they have the genetics to do so.  Of all the trout populations in the Upper Klamath Basin, those markers are overwhelming found in the Cascade rainbows.  Clearly, this makes these fish quite valuable to the reintroduction process following dam removal.

While I live outside of Bend, for over a decade I have extensively explored and fished the entire Upper Klamath Basin and east into the Great Basin.  During the summer and early fall it is my home away from home and I have become competent fishing there.  One of my favorite targets are the Casacade rainbows, which can be even larger than the already huge redbands in places like the Wood and lower Williamson.

Upper Klamath Basin trout are declining in numbers, however, at least due in part to the decade-long drought conditions in this region.  To better protect these fish, last fall the ODFW Commission approved angling regulation changes for the Williamson and Sprague Rivers as well as Agency Lake (part of Upper Klamath Lake).  During public testimony as a private citizen, not a R&E board member, I voiced support for these changes and suggested that catch and release rules should also be applied to a quite small section of one east-side creek which is probably the single most important spawning ground for the entire Cascade rainbow population.  Currently, this area is open to harvest.

I have been a supporter of, and volunteer for, ODFW for many years but at the Commission meeting senior ODFW management dismissed my request. They stated that these fish on their spawning grounds did not need additional protection, that I was being elitist, and that anglers should have their “choice of protein”. (They really said these things.)

Now, perhaps, it will not be so elitist to ask for some additional minimal protection for the group of trout most likely to revert to anadromy in the Upper Klamath Basin.