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Last Fish / Last Habitat
Elwha and Sauk Basin Surveys

by Jamie Glasgow, WT Science and Research Director

View from the Lillian Creek trail in the
Upper Elwha Basin.

 

“Let me see how my calendar looks,” I said with forced ambivalence.

I made a mental note to myself: clear calendar. I was being offered an opportunity to survey fish distribution within pristine, unmanaged old-growth forests, and possibly improve the way Washington manages its forest practices. I wasn’t going to miss that. Not a chance.

In spring 2000, Washington Trout was contracted by CMER, the Cooperative Monitoring, Evaluation, and Research arm of the Washington Timber, Fish, and Wildlife Program, to assist them in developing a statewide fish-distribution model. The model will be used to determine what protection streams and rivers in Washington’s forested lands will receive, incorporating physical parameters like channel width, gradient, and upstream basin area that are associated with previously documented fish bearing (type-3) and non-fish bearing (type-4) habitat breaks.

To help calibrate of the model, WT will submit information to CMER on approximately 4,000 type-3/type-4 breakpoints, data collected throughout the western cascades over the past four years by WT’s Habitat Lost and Found program. The majority of these data was collected in systems that were disturbed in varying degrees. To determine fish distribution in undisturbed, relatively pristine watersheds, WT crews will survey the upper extent of fish distribution in tributaries of the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, and in tributaries of the Sauk River in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

WT Crew members from left to right, Jamie Glasgow, C.J. May and Frank Staller.

The surveys were scheduled to take three months, from mid-July to October 2000, giving WT only a few months to plan and equip fourteen separate field expeditions into two separate watersheds in remote areas of the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. Each trip would be undertaken by two- to four-person WT field crews, staying four to ten days at a remote base camp, hiking each day to survey even more remote streams in terrain little used or even seen by other people. The trips would require packing in several Sherpas’ loads of supplies and equipment, including the large base-camp tent, backpack electro-shockers, other sampling and habitat surveying gear, small tents for overnight surveys, food, and data-recording and other supplies. The project will spend a total of forty days in each watershed.

In the Field
After three months and dozens of hours of logistical planning, I finally found myself hiking behind a ragged string of llamas, dodging droppings and glares from critters whose picture should appear next to Webster’s entry for ornery. Later that night, I awoke to the scratching and scrounging of small mammals just

Llamas were used to pack in equipment and
supplies to the Lillian River base camp.

outside the tent. Or were they inside? Who cared? Sheer exhaustion from bushwhacking up 40% gradient tributaries searching for the highest fish in the stream is the ultimate elixir for backcountry insomnia. I dropped quickly back to sleep, recalling forests of massive cedars and firs, varied shades of green, and multiple degrees of decay, full of anticipation for the next day’s work and adventure.

Jamie Glasgow and C.J. May hiking to a survey site.

The first of the ten-day surveys in the Elwha watershed was completed in July. The team of llamas packed supplies and the cumbersome survey equipment to the first base camp at the end of the Lillian River trail, seven miles from the Elwha River trailhead at Whiskey Bend. A cold, fairly steep tributary with a large waterfall that forms an impassable fish barrier at its confluence with the Elwha, the Lillian River drains the south side of Olympic National Park’s Hurricane Ridge. The Lillian supports populations of wild rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and native char (Salvelinus confluentus and S. malma).

We surveyed several of the Lillian’s tributaries. Although many had very steep gradients, several appeared to provide excellent fish and amphibian habitat in their lower reaches. We recorded very few fish in the tributaries. However, water temperatures were still very low, and it is likely that juvenile trout had not yet emerged from the gravels in the Lillian or its tributaries. Interestingly, we observed numerous juvenile tailed frogs (Ascaphus truei) in exceedingly steep reaches in the tributaries. We will recommend to CMER that these tributaries be revisited in the fall, when it is likely that juvenile trout will be more evenly distributed throughout the Lillian watershed.

The three remaining surveys in the Elwha will each work successively higher towards the Elwha’s headwaters. The second base camp will be just upstream from the Elk Horn Ranger Station. Camp #3 will be located at the mouth of the Hayes River, and we will set the final base camp nearly 22 miles from the trailhead, at Godkin Creek. These future efforts in the Elwha will explore and survey tributaries within the uppermost reaches of the Elwha basin. We expect to find the upper extant of fish distribution for the Elwha’s native rainbow trout and its native char, likely both Dolly Varden (S. malma) and Federally Threatened bull trout (S. confluentus).

Frank Staller and Jamie Glasgow
during a stream sampling.

To provide data on the upper extent of fish distribution from undisturbed habitats in the Cascades, WT is mounting similar expeditions to remote tributaries in the Sauk River basin. Crews will pack in and out from ten separate base camps throughout the basin, staying four days at each, surveying a number of streams within a day’s hike from each camp. The total fieldwork is expected to take two months.

The first week of fieldwork began in early August on Buck Creek, a tributary to the Suiattle River. Buck Creek is steep, cold, gin-clear, excellent habitat for native char, resident trout, and steelhead. Because there is no trail associated with most of the creek, much of the first part of the survey was spent crawling around cliff bands through seemingly endless galleries of devil’s club and other hostile vegetation. While making for tough going, these inhospitable conditions increase the likelihood that the data crews collect will represent truly undisturbed habitats, unaltered by either land use practices or angling pressure.

At this writing, the crew is still at the first base camp, so we have not received the preliminary results of the first Sauk-basin survey.

From a logistical standpoint, the Last Fish/Last Habitat Survey is one of the most ambitious projects WT has ever undertaken. It is also one of the most exciting and important. While understanding the sometimes difficult, and serious nature of the work involved, the WT field crew is excited about the opportunity to take part in expeditions into some of the most remote and beautiful areas of the Northwest. We are also enthusiastic about the opportunity to help improve forest management practices. Basing fish-distribution models on the extent of fish habitat in undisturbed systems will be an important and necessary factor in protecting wild fish and their habitats from inappropriate forest practices. Results from this project may also contribute to preservation and recovery planning for bull trout, listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

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