Bruce Anderson and Greg Williams of McKenzie Fly FishersPhoto by Taylor Griggs

Salmon in the Smoke

Recent forest fires emphasize the danger the McKenzie River’s wild Chinook salmon are in

Before Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife employees at the Leaburg Hatchery, about three miles west of Vida, could evacuate from the Holiday Farm Fire that was spreading down the McKenzie River corridor in September, they had a big choice to make. Would they prematurely release the fish housed at the hatchery into the McKenzie River, or let them die? 

In the early morning hours of Sept. 8, as the sky glowed red from the raging fire that was still getting bigger and more destructive, ODFW ended up releasing about 1.2 million Chinook salmon, small steelhead and rainbow trout fry into the McKenzie River. To ODFW, it was better than seeing them all die in the hatchery.

Then the employees joined members of the McKenzie River communities in evacuating from the fire, which burned down hundreds of structures and homes across the McKenzie River valley. 

The reason Leaburg Hatchery was in such a tough position was not due to the risks of the flames alone. The Eugene Water and Electric Board, which operates hydroelectric dams on the McKenzie, had to open the Leaburg Dam gates in order to prevent the dam from getting clogged up with fire debris. This would cut off the hatchery’s water supply, killing the fish.

But wild fish conservationists, already wary of hatcheries, worried about the impact of releasing so many hatchery fish into the McKenzie at once. In particular, the McKenzie’s spring Chinook salmon run has been dwindling over the last half century due to overfishing, habitat loss and dam construction, and many conservationists think that hatcheries are contributing to their downfall. 

There have been  legal battles over wild fish protection over the past two decades. Wild fish advocacy groups from all over the Willamette Basin have filed dozens of lawsuits against ODFW and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), asking them to provide more protections for the threatened wild fish species and comply with Endangered Species Act regulations that they say haven’t been sufficiently implemented.

Wild Chinook salmon are a keystone species in the Pacific Northwest, serving as an important part of the ecosystem. There’s no question that the Chinook population in the Willamette Basin are suffering along with environmental degradation across the region. But the jury’s still out on what to do about it and how to keep everyone’s interests in mind.

With climate change creating other problems on the McKenzie corridor that will impact both animals and humans, more people will be thinking about the right ways to protect our threatened species and deal with these natural disasters while ensuring that communities along the river can rebuild.

The Plight of wild Chinook

In 2018, an orca mother off the Pacific Northwest coast captured the nation’s attention and sympathy when she carried her dead calf with her for more than two weeks after the newborn died. 

The remarkable display of grief in a non-human animal was touching, but to researchers it also represented a possible future for the critically endangered species, whose health may be impacted by declining Chinook populations. 

The Pacific Northwest’s diverse ecosystem is predicated on a lot of moving parts working correctly. If wild Chinook salmon are doing well, the entire ecosystem will be happy. And if the salmon suffer, so will everything else. 

Southern resident orcas that live off the coast in northern California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia are one species that rely heavily on wild Chinook salmon. According to a 2019 University of Washington and NOAA study, killer whales “prefer to eat only the biggest, juiciest Chinook salmon they can find.” But as wild Chinook populations are dwindling, they’re also getting smaller.

“So many things depend on wild salmon,” Bruce Anderson, a retired environmental lawyer and a member of the McKenzie Flyfishers, a local fly fishing and conservation group, says. “Their carcasses fertilize the river, making it healthy and providing food for other fish. Bears will catch them and eat them. The ecological system is dependent on them.”

Data suggests that the wild adult spring Chinook salmon population in the McKenzie River has decreased dramatically since the 1950s. A 2015 article written by members of the McKenzie Flyfishers and published in the conservation journal The Osprey says that 46,000 adult spring Chinook salmon returned to the McKenzie in 1941, before dams were constructed in the river. The estimated return from 1990-2005 was an average of 2,104 annually. 

Overharvesting wild salmon is one reason that their population is dwindling, as is climate change that heats rivers that salmon need to run cold. But dams — which block fish passage, infringe upon habitats, heat river water and create unnatural flows — have been seen as the main public enemy to Chinook populations, as well as other endangered or threatened species like steelhead trout. And the future of hatcheries, built in response to the damage dams were doing, is even more controversial. 

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Oregon spring run Chinook salmon. Photo by Conrad Gowell, Native Fish Society.

Damn the hatcheries?

When major dams were built in the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century to curb flooding and provide water and electricity, a problem started to emerge ––  migrating fish couldn’t get around them. Even before hydropower dams were built in the Pacific Northwest, more rudimentary dams were getting in the way of fish passage across the region in the Columbia, Willamette and Deschutes River basins, among others. 

The dams in the Willamette River Basin, including on the McKenzie, were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of the mid-20th century Willamette Valley Flood Control Project. This endeavor was one of many similar projects taking place across the country in response to a series of devastating floods and to promote economic recovery after the Great Depression. 

Between the passing of the Flood Control Act in 1938 and 1969, the Corps built 13 dams in the Willamette River Basin. The impact these dams were having on wild fish populations was soon noticeable, limiting fishing and harvesting opportunities, so the Corps and ODFW stepped in with their solution: produce millions of smolts, or young fish, in hatcheries, and release them into the river for people to catch. 

Fish hatcheries are a complex dilemma. They were created to make up for the damage that dams do to wild fish populations, blocking access to their habitats and migratory paths, creating unnatural flows and impacting water quality. 

But wild fish conservationists, like Dave Thomas, former biology professor, longtime conservationist and member of the McKenzie Flyfishers, don’t think that hatchery fish production is the way to go. 

He says wild fish have evolved over tens of thousands of years to survive in certain conditions, and hatchery-bred smolts don’t have the same instinct for survival. When they breed with each other, it weakens the wild salmon’s genetic fitness.

Thomas says that not enough has been done to separate wild and hatchery spring Chinook in the McKenzie River, which results in reduced fitness for the wild population.

“When the genes from the hatchery fish are introduced into the spawning grounds, this will become part of the gene pool, and the progeny of those matings are less likely to come back and survive,” Thomas says. “It’s very important to keep the genetics of native spawning stock and hatchery spawning stock separated.”

Salmon are anadromous, meaning they live in both fresh and salt water. After Chinook salmon are spawned on the McKenzie, they will migrate downstream toward the Willamette River, heading for the Columbia River and then to the Pacific Ocean. 

The spring run of Chinook on the McKenzie is unique because it’s the strongest wild Chinook run remaining in the Willamette Basin. It’s an early seasonal run that depends on being able to pass Willamette Falls, near Oregon City, when there is enough of a flow to allow them to get through on their way to the ocean. 

So there’s a lot a Chinook salmon needs to do to survive, and the McKenzie River’s wild spring run has been training for it for thousands of years. Hatchery fish aren’t as prepared for the elements. 

Jeff Ziller, fish biologist for ODFW’s South Willamette Watershed District, acknowledges the problems that have come from hatchery and wild chinook commingling. He says that since the hatchery projects were intended to mitigate dams’ impact on the McKenzie River’s angling legacy, ODFW would like to see all of the hatchery fish harvested so they aren’t competing with wild fish for food. 

“Unfortunately, anglers can’t catch that many,” Ziller says. 

Ziller says that ODFW is working to make sure that hatchery fish can’t go over Leaburg Dam by catching them in one of the sorting devices on the dam. ODFW and the McKenzie Flyfishers both want to keep hatchery fish on the other side of Leaburg Dam so they can’t mate with wild fish, but that plan isn’t yet coming to fruition.

There are two fish ladders on Leaburg Dam, both of which were intended to be able to trap hatchery fish to keep them below the dam, as well as help wild fish travel over it, but only one trap is operational. 

“Even if most of the fish prefer the ladder with the trap on it, if only a few hundred hatchery fish get over Leaburg Dam, that’s still hundreds and hundreds of hatchery fish that can mate with wild salmon,” Anderson says. 

The mass exodus of hatchery fish from the Leaburg Hatchery during the Holiday Farm Fire just added fuel to the ongoing fiery debate about fish hatcheries on the McKenzie. 

Anderson says that when ODFW released so many hatchery salmon at once, it made it all the more difficult to prevent wild and hatchery salmon from commingling. 

“We have a huge number of hatchery salmon ready to mate with wild salmon, many more than we would ever have under normal circumstances. That makes the problem really, really bad.”

Dam removal efforts have taken place in other parts of the region with the hope of naturally restoring wild fish populations. The Klamath Dam removal project has been in the works for years, with Native American tribes along the Klamath River in southern Oregon and northern California pushing to remove the four hydroelectric dams on the river. 

Conservationists haven’t pushed for dam removal projects on the McKenzie River in part because the flooding risk to nearby urban and suburban areas would be too high. 

That means other measures will need to be taken to ensure that wild Chinook are able to pass through the dams on the McKenzie. 

Heated legal battle

In one of many lawsuits waged on behalf of the McKenzie River’s wild spring Chinook, the McKenzie Flyfishers with the Steamboaters and the Western Environmental Law Center, filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps and ODFW in 2013 asking them to reduce the number of spring Chinook hatchery smolts in the McKenzie/Willamette River System, citing a violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Army Corps settled the lawsuit in 2014, agreeing to reduce the number of hatchery Chinook smolts placed in the McKenzie River. But ODFW didn’t settle, and in 2015, a federal judge accepted ODFW’s right to release 605,000 smolts they were proposing –– a decrease from previous output, but not the drastic change the fly fishers wanted. 

ODFW is aware of the issues hatcheries can create, and has a Hatchery and Genetic Management Plan for the McKenzie’s hatchery spring Chinook program that aims to keep the percentage of hatchery fish spawning upstream from Leaburg Dam at less than 10 percent. But this hasn’t been successful so far. 

“We’re nowhere near that,” Ziller says.

Ziller says ODFW is working to increase the number of wild spring Chinook salmon in the McKenzie, and that ODFW would prefer to manage restored wild salmon runs, but it doesn’t seem likely that will happen in the near future.

Much of the legal battle currently fought is based on the Willamette River Biological Opinion Reasonable and Prudent Alternatives plan that was created in 2008 to indicate how the Corps could make improvements that would help Endangered Species Act-listed species in the Willamette Basin. The desired improvements include more fish passage at dams, improving downstream flows, temperature improvements, habitat restoration projects and, importantly, improving hatchery practices. 

Tom Conning, Army Corps spokesperson, says by email that “little was known about the effects of the Corps’ Willamette Valley Project dams on the ecology of salmon populations in the Willamette River Basin” when the Biological Opinion was issued in 2008. He says that it wasn’t apparent how feasible and cost-effective the Biological Opinion’s recommendations would be.

“I think where the Corps got dragged down is wanting too much certainty, they aren’t willing to take a risk,” Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, one of the plaintiffs in a 2007 lawsuit against the Corps that led to the creation of the Biological Opinion, says. “There was a growing impatience at the pace at which they were seeking to make changes in the system.”

In August 2020, a federal judge ruled that the Army Corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to meet their obligation to take steps to protect upper Willamette wild spring Chinook and winter steelhead, based on another lawsuit filed against them in 2018. 

The Corps is now obligated to present their plan for improving wild fish passage at Willamette River dams. A spokesperson from the Corps says that they cannot comment on ongoing litigation. 

“The arguments about who is responsible for what can keep happening,” Thomas says. “But we’re marching ever closer to extinction.”

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Photo courtesy ODFW

Fish hatchery economies

Even before the Holiday Farm Fire, pro-hatchery advocates have said the hatcheries on the McKenzie are necessary to keep local economies going. Along with the thousands of tourists that visit the hatcheries each year, these operations keep the river, a famous fishing destination, stocked with fish that people can harvest.

The Leaburg Hatchery has been through its share of budget problems, and has been at risk of closure on and off for several years now. State lawmakers have repeatedly considered removing funding for the hatchery after the corps decided to contract it out to private companies in 2015, and it was under real threat of closure in 2019. 

Gov. Kate Brown included funding for Leaburg Hatchery in Oregon’s budget at the last minute, and it’s safe until at least the summer of 2021. But people who rely on fishing tourism for their livelihoods aren’t resting on their laurels yet. 

And since the fires that devastated towns like Blue River and Vida, concern about local economies has worsened. 

Sean Davis lives in McKenzie Bridge and thinks about all of the economic hardship the area has gone through in the last century. During the late 19th century, Blue River found success as a gold mining town until it ran out of gold around 1912. Then there was the logging economy, which dried up in the 1990s to protect the spotted owl. If the hatcheries go down, too, especially after the fire that devastated the area, Davis says it’ll be hard for towns on the McKenzie River to make a comeback. 

Davis was involved in the 2019 campaign to maintain funding for the hatchery when it was under threat of closure because the Army Corps announced they weren’t going to pay for it anymore. Eventually, the state agreed to fund it through 2021. 

Randy Dersham is the secretary for the McKenzie River Guides, a member of the McKenzie River Chamber of Commerce and the creative director for the upcoming McKenzie River Discovery Center in Walterville. 

Dersham says that, as a river guide, he has seen people build their livelihoods on hatchery fish in the McKenzie River. 

“If we don’t have hatchery fish in the water, the only way to protect the fish is to not have anybody fish,” Dersham says. “That would seriously damage the economy.” 

Davis also says he has an emotional attachment to fishing on the McKenzie River that he doesn’t want to see taken away.

“The first time I ever caught a fish was on the river,” Davis says. “Thirty years later, I took my daughter out and that was the first time she ever caught a fish.”

Thomas says that he understands why people like to catch and keep fish and are worried about doing away with hatcheries. 

“People want to be able to fish, to kill them, to bring them home and eat them. I understand that, because that’s the way I grew up,” Thomas says. “But the idea that the hatcheries are a replacement for the natural fish has just been a dismal failure.” 

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Illustration by Chelsea Lovejoy

The McKenzie River in the age of climate change

What happened at Leaburg Hatchery during the Holiday Farm Fire was a symptom of the larger issue of climate change, which is causing increasingly detrimental forest fires each year. Not only do these fires sometimes force millions of hatchery fish into the river prematurely, but they can also strip away the riverbanks and cause more harm to habitats. 

One thing people have been concerned about is landslides. Post-fire debris-flows can happen when an area scorched by a wildfire is drenched with rainfall. These landslides are very dangerous, and can cause as much destruction as the fires themselves. 

If a landslide made its way into the McKenzie River, it could block off fish access or destroy Chinook spawning grounds. 

This is a fear that people will continue to have as forest fires worsen each year due to climate change. Without working to solve the big picture issue, little steps to help wild fish may not make much of a difference. 

“If nothing changes, and we don’t do anything about the fire hazards, which means doing something about climate change, the idea that these fish would survive for the next 20 years would be surprising,” Thomas says. “How much are we willing to pay for the future? Right now, people don’t want to pay for the future.”

Williams of Willamette Riverkeeper says that groups like the Army Corps can continue to seek mitigation strategies for the harm inflicted on the environment, but in the long-term, people may have to deal with the economic loss. He says this is tantamount to taking any action on climate change that will cause people to make sacrifices.

“It’s unfortunate to cost jobs,” Williams says. “But the way we have done things in the world, we can always mitigate something. Hatcheries are exhibit A for why mitigation doesn’t work. We can’t destroy something, then create something else and act like it’s the same thing. We’re caught in a cycle, and we have to change.”