WDFW takes Important Step in Post-fire Habitat Recovery

Wildfires that tortured the Pacific Northwest in September did a number on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area (Swanson Lakes), located about 10 miles south of the town of Creston.

Swanson Lakes is a 21,000-acre tract of native grasslands nestled among the channeled scablands of the Columbia Plateau. Shrub-steppe and riparian/wetlands comprise the dominant habitats and much of the area is rangeland, with some old Conservation Reserve Program fields. The undulating landscape is characterized by numerous pothole and rim rock lakes and one intermittent stream.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is trumbo-seeding-2.jpg
Z Lake in the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area is one example of the unique channeled scablands and shrubby habitat. Photo courtesy of WDFW.

In western habitats, wildfire threatens native vegetation in two ways. First, given our rangeland’s generally unnatural fire cycles from fire management and encroaching invasive species, wildfires often burn much hotter than they would in pristine habitats. Fires that are too hot scorch the seed bank and possibly the underground root structure of native shrubs like sagebrush, damaging the plant’s potential to regenerate. Second, invasive weeds are incredibly prolific and competitive. In the case of the earth being blackened down to bare soil, weeds can quickly flourish, outcompeting native plants, often by simply covering the area, effectively shading out the native species.

Fortunately, WDFW was poised to respond, leveraging funds in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to quickly apply native grass seed mix to the charred Swanson Lakes landscape. Aerial seed drops covered about 930 acres on October 22nd, scattering two varieties of bluebunch wheatgrass, Idaho fescue, Sandberg bluegrass, and prairie dune grass across Swanson Lakes and a portion of adjacent BLM lands, said Mike Finch, WDFW Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area Assistant Manager.

Fall is not the ideal season to sow grasses, but the timing could not have been better. The WDFW and BLM made the seed drops in October to ensure native seeds were available to germinate on the exposed soil ahead of any invasive species seeds. Additionally, wet snow that fell October 23rd and 24th worked well to soak the seed into the soil surface, increasing the likelihood of establishment through good seed-to-soil contact. The WDFW plans to return with machinery in drier conditions to scratch the seeds slightly deeper into the soil surface.

Finch mentioned that Swanson Lakes was one of three areas receiving fall seed drops. The areas were prioritized for immediate reseeding due to their deeper soils, being more likely to establish and sustain healthy native grasses by allowing roots to grow down into moist soils for good summer survival. Understanding site conditions and prioritizing restoration efforts is important for project success and the best use of resources, particularly with the cost of native grass seed as high as $200 per acre, plus application time.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is aerial-seeding-1.jpg
Native grass seed being dropped in Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area, October 22nd. Photo courtesy of Mike Finch, WDFW.

Native shrub-steppe communities are a critical part of the ecosystem in the arid west, providing food and shelter for a wide variety of wildlife. The sharp-tailed grouse, for example, is an iconic western prairie grouse species that thrives in shrub-steppe habitat. Precisely why maintaining quality native habitat in Swanson Lakes is of critical importance. The area was acquired by the Bonneville Power Administration, primarily as a wildlife mitigation project for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, a state “threatened” species.

By leveraging funding and relationships with the BLM, and making smart decisions on the use of available resources, WDFW can sustain unique and important shrub-steppe habitat areas like Swanson Lakes to benefit wildlife and the public user well into the future.

The June Hogs of the Columbia Basin

Our jet sled bobbed near the infamous “Buoy 10” in the mouth of the Columbia River. It was a stormy September afternoon with angry Pacific surf bullying its wave action far upriver. Coho were the target, yet no one aboard complained at the prospects of landing anything willing to trounce the cut herring corkscrewing behind the boat as we drifted.

Kicking back, we enjoyed the ride, and experience of fellow fishermen jumping hurriedly for a bent rod, ripped from the complacency of a lull in the action and casual conversation. I had passed a dozen salmon to the three other anglers. They finally insisted the next bite was mine.

Diving for the gunnel as the port side rod doubled hard on the strike, drag began spooling noisily from the reel. The run was fast and strong, unlike the coho hook-ups of the day. Only a Chinook (king) salmon can pack a tuna-like punch into a chrome freshwater torpedo.

Following the initial run, the 26-inch king came in quickly. Not my first king, but certainly the most striking. Dime-bright scales glistened under the overcast sky as if the fish had been dipped in glitter. It’s dorsal was painted in muted teal, and it’s black speckling popped like sequins. It was no “June Hog”, but an unforgettable fish, nevertheless.

A small Columbia River “Buoy 10” King fresh from the salt.

June Hogs, on the other hand, have earned their place in natural and sporting history as king salmon of the Columbia Basin past. Before commercial fisheries and dams made their way to the Columbia River, kings breaching 100 pounds swam over 1,000 miles to their spawning grounds in British Columbia. Genetically speaking, these fish were the same kings that continue to return to the Columbia River year after year, but a population that grew five or more years in the Pacific Ocean before returning to spawn.

Much larger fish than those of lower river populations, historic accounts suggest they reached nearly 50 inches in length and were football-shaped, their bodies rich with fat stores. Their long journey inland led these fish to enter the Columbia River in early summer, earning the moniker June Hog. But the trek to their natal tributaries took time with spawning occurring in late summer or early fall.

Once a Native American subsistence staple, the superior quality and flavor these massive fish quickly became a prized food item for all as the west was developed. The first canaries on the Columbia River opened in the mid-1800s. A grand haul by the Seufert Brothers Cannery in The Dalles, Oregon landed 2.5 million cans of “Royal Chinook” in an Astoria, Oregon warehouse around the turn of the century. The table fare of the June Hogs deserving of the “Royal” marketing crown. At the peak of the run, canneries could pull several tons each day via fish-wheel.

The Seufert Brothers Cannery floor after a decent haul. (Photo Credit: Oregon Historical Society)

With harvest affecting the salmon populations, the average size of the June Hogs began to decline by the early 1900s, decreasing as much as 50 percent by 1922. Thirty pounds was once the bottom end of their weight range, but today, a 30-pound Columbia River Chinook is news-worthy.

Modern fishery management and harvest has resulted in an increased proportion of “jacks”, which are basically trout-sized salmon, that return within a year of migrating to the ocean, and may never have left the Columbia River estuary. But the final blow to the massive June Hogs came long ago in the form of Grand Coulee Dam.

Built without fish passage, the June Hogs racing for British Columbia were stopped cold at Grand Coulee by 1940. The populations spawning downstream in Washington tributaries were able to do so successfully with a more modest size and fat stores, their migration being half as long or difficult.

The June Hogs of historic proportions may never grace the Columbia Basin again, yet, kings in the 20-pound range are still common. Last month, I wound my way through the visitor center halls at Ice Harbor Dam and stood in awe at the fishway viewing window. Kings of all sizes cruised by, shooting nervously through the fish counting slot. According to the counting booth attendee, the kings are returning well thus far in 2021, but the overall projection for the spring run is lower than last year.

At present, myriad challenges are pressuring salmon and steelhead populations through the Pacific Basin. While special interest groups lobby against the lower Snake Rive dams, they fail to present the big picture, meaning dams are but a piece of the complicated salmon life history puzzle. Ecosystem-wide reform of fishery and harvest management, habitat restoration, invasive species management, and other environmental improvements are necessary in concert to achieve genuine population “recovery”.

Nevertheless, salmon are resilient, enduring all we’ve thrown at them for more than a century. With mindful management among stakeholders, and improvements in environmental conditions, the kings of the Columbia Basin will persist.