EUGENE, Ore. (CN) – Two environmental groups challenged the federal government’s practice of releasing summer-run steelhead trout in Oregon’s Upper Willamette Basin, claiming it prevents endangered winter-run steelhead trout from recovering.
Willamette Riverkeeper and Conservation Angler sued the Army Corps of Engineers, asking it to stop releasing summer steelhead trout until it re-consults with the National Marine Fisheries Service to address new information about the program’s long-term effects.
“There are fewer than 30 natural steelhead [trout] returning to the rivers, and it’s time for a change,” plaintiffs’ attorney Pete Frost with the Western Environmental Law Center told Courthouse News.
In the late 1960s, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife started introducing non-native summer steelhead trout into the Upper Willamette Basin for fishing. Since 1973, the department gets the broodstock from the South Santiam River hatchery, which receives 70 percent of its funding from the Corps of Engineers.
The Corps of Engineers also is responsible for authorizing and facilitating the release program, according to the groups’ May 22 complaint.
The South Santiam River originates at the confluence of Sevenmile and Squaw Creeks and flows roughly 66 miles through the Cascade Mountains to its confluence with the North Santiam River. It flows 10 more miles to meet the Willamette River upstream of Willamette Falls, on the Columbia River Gorge.
Also originating in the Cascade Mountains, the Willamette River flows 187 miles to its confluence with the Columbia River. At 35 feet, the Willamette Falls is the largest waterfall in Oregon and the sixth largest in the country.
Steelhead trout are dark-green fish with silvery-white underbellies, dark speckles and red stripes along their sides. Anadromous fish, which migrate to the ocean and back, are typically slimmer and more silvery in color and grow larger than their freshwater cousins.
Anadromous fish from the Upper Willamette basin migrate in winter, while freshwater fish from the Lower Willamette basin typically migrate in late spring and early summer. The two types of fish are genetically distinct.
The National Marine Fisheries Service in 1999 listed the Upper Willamette anadromous steelhead as an evolutionarily significant unit threatened with extinction. Seven years later, the service re-listed 10 distinct population segments of West Coast steelhead as endangered, including the Upper Willamette population.
Thanks to the release program, both winter and summer steelhead trout now spawn in the same areas at roughly the same time, and interbreed.
These hybrid offspring are less fit and less likely to reproduce, the groups say, and juvenile summer steelhead that emigrate to the Upper Willamette Basin feed on young winter steelhead and compete with them for habitat.
In 2007, the Corps of Engineers consulted with the National Marine Fisheries Services on whether to continue the release program, resulting in a biological opinion about its effects.
“Since the BiOp was issued, new information and data reveal that releases of summer steelhead trout into the South Santiam River basin and the North Santiam River Basin are harmful to and impede recovery of winter steelhead trout to an extent not previously considered or evaluated,” the complaint states.
Not only is the number of unfit genetic hybrids increasing, the number of naturally spawning winter steelhead returning from the ocean is steadily dropping. From 1990 to 2005, an average of 2,149 winter steelhead returned each year. This May, a mere 18 fish returned, and no more are expected to show up during the rest of the year, according to the complaint.
Despite the alarming nature of the new information, the groups say the Corps of Engineers failed its duty to reinitiate consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether the program jeopardizes the winter steelhead trout’s continued existence in the Upper Willamette Basin.
The Corps of Engineers does not comment on pending litigation.
The groups want a declaration that the Corps of Engineers violated the Endangered Species Act and the release program enjoined until a new biological opinion can be prepared.
Attorney Frost is with the Western Environmental Law Center’s office in Eugene.