Study Says Steelhead No Longer Threatened Threatened


Published on Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Yakima, WA - A study commissioned by irrigation and farm interests suggests Middle Columbia River steelhead are doing well enough on their own that protection under the Endangered Species Act is no longer warranted.

Middle Columbia steelhead populations, which includes Yakima River steelhead, have rebounded in recent years and aren't at risk of extinction, according to the study's author, a Gresham, Ore., consultant with years of experience in salmon issues.

Author Steve Cramer, who spent 13 years with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said on Monday the review found hatchery steelhead have not adversely affected wild steelhead populations in the region.

Steelhead, a migratory trout species, in the Middle Columbia River were listed as threatened in 1999.

Removing steelhead from the list would eliminate potentially expensive requirements on a host of issues including land use, irrigation, grazing, and timber harvest.

Steelhead are not the only species listed in the Yakima River Basin. Bull trout also are listed as threatened.

An official of NOAA Fisheries, formerly the National Marine Fisheries Service, responded it remains unclear what has caused steelhead populations to increase over the last few years or whether the trend can be sustained.

"We have to look at the causes," said Dale Bambrick of Ellensburg, the agency's habitat team leader for Eastern Washington. "Is it just marine conditions? There haven't been significant improvements in habitat."

The agency, responsible for protecting migratory fish, is reviewing the status of more than two dozen Pacific Northwest salmon and steelhead stocks in response to a federal judge's ruling.

A decision on the review, prompted by the judge's ruling that the agency incorrectly excluded hatchery fish in making its listing decisions, is expected before the end of this year.

The outcome of the review could determine whether some species are removed from the Endangered Species Act.

The study, conducted for a group known as the Mid-Columbia Stakeholders, is the group's comment on the current review. Its results were issued on Friday.

The group includes major Yakima Valley irrigation districts, the Washington State Water Resources Association, the city of Richland, Hop Growers of Washington, and the Ahtanum Irrigation District.

Cramer said his review of population trends since steelhead were listed shows wild populations are increasing throughout the region.

Further, the improvement is occurring where hatchery fish exist. Cramer said concerns by NOAA Fisheries that hatchery fish would hurt natural production don't show up in the population figures.

Cramer said he isn't arguing that steelhead populations are optimal.

"We did not say there isn't room for improvement," he said. "That is a different ballgame than measuring their risk of extinction. We agree there is much room to do more. Our finding was there is almost no risk of extinction."

Steelhead counts at Prosser Dam, near Prosser, show the number of steelhead has increased from a five-year average of 944 through 1999. Populations rose to 2,721 in 2001 and 3,089 last year.

This year's count, through early April, declined to 2,111 adults. The counts are for the 12-month period that begins each July 1.


Columbia River: Trout on ESA Endangered List Not Engangered, Study Shows

By The Sierra Times


Although steelhead trout are currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a recent scientific review reveals that these listings are not warranted.

This fish are found in the Middle Columbia River Basin.

Data from fisheries consultant Steve Cramer strengthens the long-held position of many biologists that rainbow trout - currently unlisted - should be added to the Mid-Columbia steelhead population. The inclusion of the rainbow population could dramatically reduce, or even eliminate, the risk of extinction for steelhead and lead to the de-listing of the species under the ESA.

The federal government recognizes that steelhead and rainbow are the same species. In 2002 the federal government requested new information concerning steelhead biology as part of an ongoing effort to improve the science guiding ESA decisions. In response, a coalition of Mid-Columbia interest groups hired Cramer's Gresham, Oregon firm to assemble and analyze new information on steelhead biology and present the findings to federal agencies. De-listing would free individuals, private businesses, and public entities from expensive ESA regulations associated with that species.

The ESA prohibits anyone from knowingly harming threatened fish or damaging their habitat. However steelhead, and their habitat, would still be protected by state and tribal co-management agencies. State and tribal agencies already have the authority to regulate fishery resources and manage habitat.

De-listing would allow federal agencies to focus their conservation efforts on species at risk of extinction. In the review, scientists focused on steelhead and rainbow in the Middle Columbia River evolutionary significant unit (ESU). The ESU contains rivers in Oregon and Washington that enter the Columbia River between the Snake River and the Cascade Mountains. These include the Deschutes and John Day rivers in Oregon, and the Yakima and Walla Walla rivers in Washington, as well as a number of other watersheds in the region. The region is diverse and includes high mountain, glacial-fed streams and large rivers winding through desert canyons.

Middle Columbia River steelhead were listed as a threatened species by NOAA-Fisheries (formerly National Marine Fisheries Service) in the late 1990s during a West Coast-wide review of salmon and steelhead trout populations. During the review, NOAA-Fisheries noted that hatcheries, habitat, hydropower operations and harvest were all factors that contributed to the decline in steelhead populations in the region.

NOAA-Fisheries has acknowledged that steelhead and rainbow trout are the same species, but the agency lacked data to determine whether or not the two forms interbreed when mature, which would make them part of the same population under the ESA. The new evidence shows that, at least in the Middle Columbia region, there is interbreeding between mature rainbow trout and steelhead.

Other new information also suggests that hatchery operations in the Middle Columbia region have not had significant, negative consequences for steelhead populations.

The Cramer review examined steelhead population dynamics since the early 1980's and found specific evidence from streams in the region showing that "wild fish only" runs were no more productive than runs of mixed hatchery and wild steelhead. This finding contrasted sharply with other studies that reviewed hatchery influences throughout Oregon and concluded that hatchery fish were having a negative impact on wild fish productivity. However, nearly all of the steelhead hatcheries in the Middle Columbia region rely on local stocks, rather than imported fish, to obtain fish for their hatcheries.

Scientists have long recognized that hatchery fish perform better when they are derived from local stocks. Genetic and behavioral studies show that steelhead populations in interior streams are often genetically more closely related to nearby rainbow trout populations than they are to more distant steelhead populations in other river systems.

For example, upper Yakima River steelhead are genetically more closely related to Yakima River rainbow trout, than they are to Deschutes River steelhead. In fact, laboratory studies have shown that steelhead populations typically produce some rainbow trout, and trout populations typically produce a some steelhead. This information is critical for ESA decision-making purposes because the Middle Columbia region includes robust rainbow trout populations which support popular sport fisheries throughout the region. Thus, the inclusion of rainbow trout in the Middle Columbia steelhead population would dramatically reduce or even eliminate the risk of extinction for steelhead and would probably lead to the de-listing of the species under the ESA.

"We are urging NOAA-Fisheries to consider this new information while they review the status of the Middle Columbia steelhead population," Cramer declared. "The Middle Columbia region is unique," he said. "Steelhead and rainbow trout interactions in the region are probably much more dynamic than they are in other areas such as on the Coast or Puget Sound."

Copies of Cramer's report, titled "A Review Of Abundance Trends, Hatchery And Wild Fish Interactions, And Habitat Features For The Middle Columbia Steelhead ESU" can be reviewed on the Internet at


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