Deschutes steelheads ESA exempt

January 11, 2013
Deschutes steelheads ESA exempt

Designation lessens “take" risks

By Dylan J. Darling 

“It is going to protect water users and irrigators from the liability of take," said Mike Kasberger, manager of the Ochoco Irrigation District, which serves 20,000 acres of land around Prineville.

Take is the federal term for the unintentional killing of a protected species — in this case, steelhead.

The wild steelhead run has been listed as threatened since 1999 for rivers in the Middle Columbia River Basin, including the Deschutes.

NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency that oversees the management of sea-run fish, announced Thursday that the population of steelhead reintroduced to waters above the Pelton Round Butte dam complex along the Deschutes during the past five years is “experimental."

The label, which exempts reintroduced steelhead from ESA protections, becomes official in about a month and will last for 12 years.

“It is part of the reintroduction effort," said Scott Carlon, a fish biologist with the agency in Portland. “If somebody is doing an otherwise lawful activity, they are not liable for take with this special designation."

The designation will not affect state fishing regulations, which allow for an annual season for hatchery-bred steelhead on the Deschutes, he said. It will still be illegal to intentionally catch wild steelhead on the Lower Deschutes and reintroduced steelhead on the Upper Deschutes.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has made such designations before, such as in 2011 for bull trout being reintroduced to the Clackamas River. But Carlon said this is the first time NOAA Fisheries has made the designation. The agency started work on the designation in 2008, but other projects facing legal deadlines took priority in the meantime.

“It just took us awhile to get it done," Carlon said.

The reintroduction of steelhead, an ocean-going rainbow trout, to waters upstream of the Pelton Round Butte dam complex started in 2007, with the release, of the hatchery-raised young of wild fish behind the dam complex.

More releases followed as Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs — the owners of the three dams —built a $100 million submerged tower in 2009 to improve water quality along the river and allow fish to move downstream of the dams and eventually to the Pacific Ocean.

Last year the first returning adult steelhead, and salmon, were retrieved just downstream of the dams, trucked upstream and released into Lake Billy Chinook. Salmon on the Deschutes aren’t under the same federal protections as the steelhead.

Steelhead releases upstream of the dam complex were focused on Whychus and McKay creeks, as well as the Crooked River, said Julie Keil, director of hydro licensing for PGE. Some of the fish may eventually swim in the Upper Deschutes River, but the natural barriers of Steelhead Falls and Big Falls will keep them from swimming as far as Bend.

The new federal designation will allow water users and other parties involved with the steelhead reintroduction to work together, she said, without the “specter of legal action under the ESA" hanging over projects.

The designation is beneficial to towns around Central Oregon as well, said Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe. Like water users, cities will be protected from any take of steelhead. The Crooked River runs through Prineville and could soon boast a steelhead run.

“It is really a big thing for us to be getting this (designation)," Roppe said.

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