Scientists Review Resident Fish and Sturgeon Projects Across the Columbia River Basin

Burbot in the Kootenai Tribe's hatchery. Photo: Idaho Statesman.

In its review of 44 resident fish and sturgeon projects for implementation through the Council’s Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, the 11-member Independent Scientific Review Panel found that 30 projects met scientific review criteria in the Northwest Power Act. The panel also highlighted two important related issues: the importance of cultural knowledge of Indian tribes in project implementation, performance and progress, and the need to improve communications among the ISRP, the Council, project sponsors, and the Bonneville Power Administration, which funds and implements the program.

ISRP Chair Stan Gregory, an emeritus professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University, said at the Council’s August meeting that the 44 reviewed projects covered a large portion of the Columbia River Basin and addressed 10 native species, most frequently Westslope Cutthroat Trout and Redband Trout, and 10 non-native species, most frequently Smallmouth Bass and Walleye. Resident fish are those that do not migrate to and from the ocean. The proposals included fish in five large lakes, more than 50 ponds and smaller lakes, and eight reservoirs behind dams.

“Geographically and biologically this was a very extensive set of proposals,” Gregory said.

Most of the projects are ongoing, and two-thirds of them have not had a scientific review in nine years. The ISRP recommended that 10 projects need to address conditions to fully meet criteria, and the ISRP requested the sponsors respond to specific questions.

Examples of projects that met criteria include:

  • Evaluating the life history of native salmonids in the Malheur River Subbasin, Oregon, a project of the Burns Paiute Tribe. Gregory called this a model project with a strong demonstration of adaptive management and extensive collaboration.
  • Enhancing White Sturgeon in Lake Roosevelt above Grand Coulee Dam, a project of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Gregory noted the project has seen great success in rebuilding the sturgeon population – so much so that the tribes have been able to develop a sturgeon fishery in the lake.
  • Suppressing non-native fish in the Pend Oreille River, including Northern Pike and Brook Trout, a project of the Kalispel Tribe. Gregory noted that aggressive, predatory Northern Pike are a major problem, and that the suppression methods employed by the tribe, including gill netting and electrofishing for pike and poisoning and introducing sterile males for Brook Trout, have been effective but must be continued. He noted that what has been learned in the Pend Oreille has proven useful for similar efforts to control the spread of pike downriver in Lake Roosevelt. The ISRP recommended exploring creation of a multi-state task force for pike with state invasive species councils.
  • Removing non-native Rainbow Trout from the South Fork Snake River to improve the population of native Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout, a project of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Gregory said that by improving the design of weirs and better detection of Rainbow Trout and hybrids, the department is better able to protect and rebuild the populations of native Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout.
  • Kootenai River Burbot restoration program, a coordinated effort of the Kootenai Tribe and Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Gregory noted that the tribe found that hatchery-raised Burbot did not survive well after release because of a lack of food in the river, particularly during periods of cool water, but periods of warm water killed Burbot eggs. So the tribe has been working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to improve river flows and temperature from Libby Dam. The project has been so successful that a Burbot fishery opened in the river, at the time the first in 30 years.
  • Secure and restore fish and wildlife habitat in Montana, a project of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which has protected 64 kilometers (about 40 miles) of floodplain in the Jocko River Basin, a tributary to the Flathead River. This proposal and dialogue with the proponents demonstrated important leadership and collaboration around the topic of protecting the remnant high-quality habitats for focal species populations that have been negatively affected by Columbia River hydrosystem development, notably for this project Hungry Horse Dam.

Desiree Tullos, an ISRP member and a professor in the Biological and Ecological Engineering Department at Oregon State University, said the review exposed the panel to multiple cultural perspectives and, as she put it, different ways of knowing.

“There is a tendency to rely on empirical data, but there are other ways – cultural and indigenous knowledge,” she said. In response to a question from Montana Council Member Jennifer Anders, Tullos said the ISRP is “just starting the process of having that conversation, and would like to develop it," she said. The idea is to work with other fish and wildlife agencies, and Columbia River tribes, "... to understand the extent to which we can consider traditional decision processes alongside scientific processes." She said the ISRP members “appreciate and understand there are other perspectives, and that they have value, too. We’d like to have more of those conversations about how to consider traditional cultural knowledge in implementing the [fish and wildlife] program. We don’t want to do this [ISRP reviews] as a bunch of siloed academics.”

The ISRP also noted the inconsistent communications between Bonneville, the Council, and project sponsors. According to the ISRP report, “the communication process between the ISRP, the Council, the project proponents, and BPA remains a work in progress but currently hinders effective project and program implementation.” The report cites the example of four projects for which a past ISRP review recommended developing monitoring and evaluation actions, but for which Bonneville did not allow funding within a Columbia Fish Accord budget. As a result, monitoring efforts were not developed. “The ISRP again finds the lack of evaluation to be a deficient scientific criterion for those projects and many others,” according to the report.

Oregon Council Member Ted Ferrioli noted the ongoing communication difficulties, which the Council addressed in its 2020 Addendum to the fish and wildlife program by specifically requiring Bonneville to report to the Council when it changes the scope or budget of a project.

“The blocked communications between Bonneville and the Council are negatively affecting project managers and the work of the ISRP,” Ferrioli said. “Bonneville is aware of these blockages that seem to be systematic, and that the Council is extremely distressed. It almost seems like there is an information embargo. It is unacceptable, and I am certain Bonneville managers are aware of the Council’s discomfort with this problem not being addressed. I place high value on openness in government and energetic information sharing between public agencies. I’m encouraged that conversations between Council Staff and BPA to produce a solution will help resolve this issue.”

In response, Bonneville later issued the following statement:

"Bonneville and the Council continue to discuss communications and appropriate ways to share timely information about F&W projects.  We believe we are making good progress with staff to staff conversations.  An amendment to the Northwest Power Act in 1996 authorized the Council to establish the ISRP and this created a relationship between the Council and the ISRP.  The ISRP, and its companion the ISAB, perform a valuable service to the region by providing independent scientific review of F&W mitigation projects. Bonneville always considers the ISRP’s reviews closely and appreciates the thought and effort put into recommendations."