Wildlife officials this week confirmed migrating fish in the upper White Salmon River — a sight not seen in almost a century, since a hydroelectric dam first blocked the waterway in 1913.
Scientists with the Yakama Nation Fisheries program and the U.S. Geological Survey spotted jumping fish, likely adult steelhead, at both Husum Falls and BZ Falls. Both locations are well upstream of Condit Dam, which was breached with a blast of dynamite in October.
"It's a pretty exciting sight anyway," said Jeanette Burkhardt, a watershed planner with Yakama Nation Fisheries. "But given that they haven't been in the river in 99 years, it's pretty amazing."
The sightings were no fluke. In a span of about 20 minutes on Sunday, Burkhardt and the small group she was with saw 21 instances of a fish emerging from the water, she said. More followed during a return trip to the river Monday. That means fish are making their way from the Columbia River past the mouth of the White Salmon, through the opening at the bottom of Condit Dam and into new territory.
The fish spotted this week were likely hatchery steelhead, though it's tough to be sure from a distance, said USGS biologist Brady Allen. Photos and observations indicate they're not the fall chinook salmon that were placed above Condit Dam before last year's breaching, he said. They're also much bigger than the resident trout that already occupy the upper watershed, he added.
Scientists and tribal leaders have watched the area closely since the White Salmon again became a free-flowing river last fall, and Northwestern Lake drained to reveal a new channel above the dam. Surveys earlier this year found no new fish in the water. But after hearing of sightings from local rafters in recent weeks, they decided to go back for another look.
A proposed management plan for the river calls for a mostly hands-off approach, hoping salmon and steelhead repopulate the newly open river on their own. As the White Salmon continues to churn sediment and debris toward its mouth at the Columbia River, there had been uncertainty as to whether that could happen this soon. Plus, crews haven't finished dismantling what's left of Condit Dam.
"That definitely means we have passage," Burkhardt said of the fish sighting, "even without the dam removed."
PacifiCorp, which owns Condit Dam and the land around it, decided to decommission the facility last year rather than install costly fish passage upgrades required for relicensing. Crews expect to have the structure completely gone by the end of August. They'll also replant the now-barren, exposed landscape once inundated by Northwestern Lake.
Scientists suspected steelhead might be the first to make their way to new habitat on the White Salmon once the dam opened up. Spring chinook salmon might also be in the mix this time of year, Allen said. Fall chinook salmon have historically populated the three miles of river below the dam, and could make their way farther up later this year, Burkhardt said.
"I think there's a good chance that they could recolonize without much help," Allen said.