Celebration of Returning Salmon in Cherokee Creek

by Aaron Everett, Washington State Forester and Scott Rockwell, Stillaguamish Tribe Forests & Fish Biologist

FFFPP Project Open House. Photo: Tamara Neuman.

As fall rains caused Puget Sound rivers and streams to rise, and Coho salmon return to their spawning grounds, the Stillaguamish Tribe hosted an open-house to celebrate the successful construction of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Family Forest Fish Passage Program (FFFPP) funded Cherokee Creek Fish Passage Project.

The Program’s goal is to help restore declining salmon and trout populations by replacing culverts with new structures that allow fish to migrate upstream and access quality habitat. The Cherokee Creek fish passage project replaced a deteriorating metal culvert that was poorly installed.  It was too small to withstand floods, had created an artificial waterfall that was too high for salmon to get over on their journey upstream, and was interfering with natural stream ecology.

Now in its place is a steel bridge and an 80 foot long section of restored stream channel which restores fish access to over a mile of productive spawning habitat. Many miles of streams in Washington State are inaccessible to fish because of these kinds of barrier culverts or other in-stream structures.

The open house was a celebration of the people, partnerships and programs that make these projects happen, and also included some extra special guests. Right on cue, many returning Coho salmon were seen swimming through the restored area during the open house, their genetic compasses guiding them back upstream to habitat that had not been accessible for years. The sponsor and neighboring landowners’ excitement and appreciation for the completed project were hard to contain: “I am like a kid in a candy store, I haven’t seen this many returning salmon in years,” stated one local landowner.

To complete fish passage projects DNR works with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Governor’s Recreation and Conservation Office, and a host of project sponsors – including tribes, salmon enhancement groups, and conservation districts. The Stillaguamish Tribe sponsored the Cherokee Creek project. The Tribe conducted landowner outreach, collected habitat data, provided matching project funds, managed the project design, and also handled construction oversight, permitting, billing, and grant management.

Cherokee Creek is especially significant for Coho salmon. For over 12 years it has been a spawner “index” stream, where on a weekly basis during fall season, Stillaguamish Tribal staff conduct spawner surveys. The number and location of reproducing adults and “redds” (salmon egg nests) is recorded in order to help forecast the size of returning Coho runs in future years. This data is shared with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and other Treaty Indian Tribes to manage the Coho fishery, and monitor the health of runs. Cherokee Creek is recognized as a highly productive stream for Coho, providing spawning, rearing and refuge for several other species of Pacific salmon, as well as cutthroat trout and bull trout.

Safety, access, and economic benefits have also resulted from the project. Jobs at local engineering and general contractor firms were supported by conducting the culvert replacement and restoration work. Future timber harvest by landowners along the access road can now occur over the newly installed bridge. And as an added bonus, the project came in $30,000 under budget – funds to be applied to more projects in other high-priority streams.

From DNR’s perspective, it’s the partnerships that make the whole thing happen. In a letter commending the project’s success, Commissioner of Public Lands, Peter Goldmark wrote: “The Stillaguamish Tribe’s work in partnership with the Department of Natural Resources is essential for success in delivering FFFPP financial assistance to small family forest landowners. The program is one of the critical links in a comprehensive approach to forest road management. I am so pleased that FFFPP has become such a successful program with a proven track record in repairing the highest-priority fish passage barriers.”

Since the program began in 2003, 232 fish barriers, usually blocking road culverts, have been eliminated on nonindustrial timberland, returning some 500 miles of stream habitat to migrating salmon and trout. FFFPP works statewide to continue to correct these barriers. It’s important to note, however, that the program has more than 500 projects on a waiting list that still need funding from the legislature. For more information about the program, visit DNR’s Small Forest Landowner website at www.dnr.wa.gov/sflo.