Bring Them Back Better

By Karl Konecny

The iconic North Umpqua summer steelhead run is collapsing.  Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has closed the river to fishing to protect the few remaining wild fish.  As an organization founded by anglers dedicated to the protection of this river we are very saddened but fully support the closure and are committed to addressing all the issues that have depleted this iconic run of fish. The annual snorkel survey of Steamboat and Canton Creek, traditional spawning ground strongholds, found only 59 wild steelhead, none of them in Canton Creek.  In 2000, Dan Callaghan captured his iconic photo of over 400 wild summer steelhead in the Big Bend pool of Steamboat Creek. In 1999 the run was even more amazing, over 600 fish were in that resting pool.  The photo above was taken in 2012. In just over 20 years, the famous North Umpqua summer steelhead run has collapsed by over eighty percent.

The North Umpqua steelhead run has been influenced by humans for millennia.  Native Americans thrived in the watershed, subsisting on the natural abundance.  European immigrants began commercial harvest of the apparently endless salmon runs in the 19th century.  Shortly thereafter, the Oregon legislature, concerned over diminishing runs, turned to the unproven promise of hatcheries — building the first one on the North Umpqua in 1900.  In 1927, a dirt road was pushed through to the mouth of Steamboat Creek.  Sport-fishing camps soon followed, word of the spectacular run of large steelhead got out and anglers began to arrive from around the world.  Zane Grey first fished the North Umpqua in 1931.

After World War II activity really heated up.  A paved road was pushed up the stream side grade, not only altering the bed and character of the canyon river but allowing access to dam builders and timber companies.  The upper most river accessible to steelhead was cutoff by dams and a web of logging roads began to push into the tributary valleys.  By 1949, depleted runs forced the closure of the river to commercial harvest.  Yet the summer steelhead persisted, although at reduced levels.

In 1957 Frank and Jeanne Moore bought Clarence Gordon’s store downstream of Steamboat Creek (the remnant of his North Umpqua Lodge) and developed Steamboat Inn.  Poor logging practices began to decimate tributary streams.  In 1964 Frank Moore instigated the production of the film “Pass Creek” that documented the logging damage and pushed for reform.  While logging practices have improved, there is continuing harm from the extensive road network, the mass conversion of the native forest into young overstocked plantations, insufficient riparian buffers, and widespread herbicide use on private timberland.In 2019 much of the Steamboat Creek drainage was designated The Frank and Jeanne Moore Wild Steelhead Sanctuary, honoring the tireless work of the Moores for the North Umpqua’s iconic steelhead run and specifying that the watershed be managed for the prosperity of the fish.  Unfortunately, no money was allocated for restoration and management of the landscape.

Lately, the impacts of climate change are becoming undeniably obvious and the summer steelhead are suffering from them.  Reduced snow pack, hotter summers, extended droughts, increased wildfires.  All of this results in lower flows and warmer water which give shorter migration windows, fewer cool-water summer refuges, and reduced suitable rearing habitat.

Other threats exist: Hatchery summer steelhead, planted to boost sport angling, negatively impact the wild fish through competition and cross breeding which genetically weakens the resilience of the wild population. inadequate fish passage at Winchester Dam that delays upstream migration of adults and physically harms downstream smolts as they crash onto shallow bedrock after being swept over the lip of the dam.  Striped and Smallmouth Bass, invasive predators in the main stem, are proliferating.  Finally, the impact of catch and release angling cannot be overlooked.  We have declining runs and heavy angling pressure.  How often can a wild fish be caught and released and still have the reserves to spawn successfully?The sad irony of so many threats impacting the North Umpqua Summer Steelhead run is that all parties can point to something else and claim the problem is not theirs. In fact, all of these threats are impacting the fish and all must be addressed to recover a healthy wild population.

Instead of pointing fingers, everyone must do their part to bring back the summer steelhead.  The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management must realign their management focus on reversing the degradation of decades of timber production and the associated road building.  The roads cause erosion problems by channeling silty runoff.  Valley bottom roads interrupt the movement of large wood to the streams and prevent the natural meandering of streams that generate critical side channel habitat.   Roads also interrupt groundwater flow through compaction of the prevalent shallow soils, forcing groundwater to the surface.  This robs the streams of the cool water that sustains the low summer flows.  The even aged plantations that replaced the old, complex forests during the clear-cutting era must be thinned.  Recent research has demonstrated that these young, overstocked plantations transpire much more water than the historic forests, again robbing the streams of the cold groundwater supply.  The streamflow record of Steamboat Creek shows a steady decline in low summer flow levels over the past twenty plus years, this must be reversed for the Frank and Jeanne Moore Wild Steelhead Sanctuary to succeed.

Congress must appropriate dedicated funding for the Forest Service and BLM to do this work.  Too often non-commercial thinning projects and road decommissioning are dropped from lack of resources.  Congress must also dedicate permanent resources to monitoring of the fish populations, habitat conditions, and environmental and water quality.  You cannot manage what you do not measure.  Today, one of the most significant monitoring project in the basin — annual juvenile snorkel surveys of Canton and Steamboat Creeks — is funded and directed by private individuals and organizations.  This should be the responsibility of the land managers.

The Oregon Department of Forestry must also rethink its priorities.  Riparian protection rules should not be based on levels that do no more harm, instead they need to be based on restoring the great harm done in the past.  They must also embrace the value of forests to mitigate climate change as well as promote adaption strategies to the inevitable impacts of climate change.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has made some commendable tough decisions to protect the collapsing wild run of summer steelhead by closing the river to fishing.  Earlier they instituted emergency bubble closures and hoot-owl regulations due to low, warm water.  These were needed but were too little, too late. The emergency regulation process needs to be streamlined.  The surviving steelhead in the Steamboat watershed passed through the lower river in May and June.  Water temperature issues already existed but the emergency regulations did not go into effect until July and August.  With climate change impacts and collapsing runs ODFW needs a mindset sift, regulations should be nominally very conservative and only liberalized when monitoring indicates a healthy run.  This requires better monitoring and science based escapement goals aimed at rebuilding the fish runs.

ODFW must also give up on hatchery plants where wild runs exist.  The negative genetic influence on hatchery fish of wild fish is well documented.  The wild fish show much greater resilience to climate change than hatchery fish, promoting wild runs is the only path forward for salmon and steelhead to prosper in Oregon.State and local leaders must do their part as well setting ambitious climate change mitigation goals and advocating for our iconic salmon and steelhead runs, things that make Oregon Oregon.  Douglas County and the local cities promote the area as a Mecca for river recreation and outstanding fishing, they need to do their part to protect and restore the resource.

Each of us must do our part as well.  As anglers we must care more for the fish than the catching of the fish.  Hike along the river more, fish a bit less. When you hook a fish, celebrate and quit for the day.  Restrict yourself to more challenging, less effective methods: skated flies, upstream dries, relearn the joys of single hand rods.  Bring out your inner Lee Spencer and cut the points from your hooks — be satisfied with the boil or grab.  We must also all do our part to mitigate climate change: drive less, walk more, make your next vehicle electric, and promote climate change mitigation with your friends, neighbors, and elected leaders.  Vote for strong climate change mitigation as if your life depending on it — the life you know does.

Kirk BlaineBring Them Back Better