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1999 Headwaters Species Project

by Bill McMillan


A Washington Trout research team completed its second full field season of collecting, identifying, and photo-documenting native trout species in headwaters of the Mid-Columbia Basin during the summer of 1999. A report on the findings of the 1999 field collections and documentation is nearly complete, pending the completion of the DNA analysis of collected tissue samples.

The Headwaters Species Project is an attempt to identify and document the status, characteristics, and distribution of indigenous wild resident-trout populations in headwater streams throughout the Mid-Columbia Basin. In 1998, the project sampled eleven stream populations in the Yakima and Naches River basins, and in 1999 sampled another 20 populations in the Sanpoil, Kettle, and Pend O’Reille
basins. Researchers collect samples through non-lethal dry-fly angling, photograph representative specimens with the aid of a specially built field aquarium, and take non-lethal tissue samples for nuclear

East Fork Smalle Creek

microsatellite DNA analysis. In ’98, the project identified one population of native redband rainbows (Oncorhynchus mykiss gairdneri), and five populations of genetically pure westslope cutthroat (O. clarki lewisi), including two A-rated populations (no hybrids and no history of stocking), lending weight to earlier suggestions that the historical range of westslopes extends farther west than previously believed. The multi-year project is being funded primarily by a grant from the Bonneville Power Administration.

WT consultant Dr. Patrick Trotter headed the 1999 field crew, assisted by WT Board Vice President
Bill McMillan and volunteer Aaron Peterson. For his generous and invaluable assistance, Peterson received credit toward his

East Fork Smalle Creek Cutthroat

Environmental Science degree from Western Washington University. WT Resource Analyst Nick Gayeski, Headwaters Species Project coordinator, also contributed to the field surveys as needed. At the 1999 WT Benefit Auction, Washington Trout supporter George Henry purchased the opportunity to accompany the research crew for two days during the ’99 field season, and with his companion Ken Winkleback assisted with field collections on Sullivan and Harvey Creeks.

In 1999 the project focused its collections in Northeastern Washington, particularly on streams in the Colville National Forest. The National Forest had expressed interest in the Headwater Species Project complimenting headwater trout population studies previously undertaken by Colville Forest fish biologist Tom Shuhda. A cost-sharing agreement with the Colville National Forest, including accommodations, extra manpower, and funding for additional DNA analysis allowed the project to sample many more streams it had in the Yakima basin in 1998. With the Forest’s help, and particularly the field and advisory help of Tom Shuhda, the project sampled 19 streams within the Forest boundaries. With the cooperation of WDFW, a 20th collection was taken from the Kings Lake stock of westslope cutthroat raised at Washington's Colville Hatchery. Kings Lake westslope cutthroat have been planted in streams and lakes throughout Eastern Washington. DNA samples from this stock will be compared with samples from westslope cutthroat included in other Headwater Species Project collections.

At the invitation of the Yakama Indian Nation, the project also investigated sections of two tributaries of the upper Klickitat River where westslope populations were suspected (specimens had been quickly field-identified in previous tribal surveys). Although tribal biologists and personnel were extremely helpful, we were unable to collect any westslope cutthroat from either stream. Crews did collect Eastern brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) and a number of apparent hatchery-origin rainbow trout (several of the latter appearing to have been very recently released into the stream). This was disappointing. It appears possible that these introduced species may have completely displaced the cutthroat populations that had previously been identified in these two tributaries. If the project could have documented indigenous westslope cutthroat in the Klickitat basin, it would have pushed their known range significantly farther west than previously identified.

The Introduction of brook trout and coastal rainbow (O. m. irideus) also seems to have significantly impacted native trout populations in Colville National Forest headwaters. We abandoned plans for taking DNA samples on several streams in Colville Forest due to finding brook trout and/or coastal rainbows, rather than westslope cutthroat that had been historically identified there. It appeared that brook trout, in particular, had been planted into the uppermost headwaters (well above significant migration barriers, and where wetted stream widths were as narrow as two feet). For all practical purposes, some of these tiny creeks were virtually unfishable due to their small size and tangled overhang. The purpose of ever having planted these tributaries with exotic game fish remains logically elusive. But there they are, and there westslope cutthroat no longer are.

However, 14 years ago, agencies ceased planting brook trout in Colville Forest, and bag limit increases that now allow anglers to keep 50 brook trout were instituted in an attempt to eradicate them from these watersheds. Tom Shuhda found some of our collections encouraging. On a few streams where brook trout had previously predominated, we now found only westslope cutthroat. Shuhda believes that improved forest practices and the cessation of brook trout planting may have begun to benefit the Colville Forest’s native trout populations. Nevertheless, we continued to find streams with significant habitat problems related to roads and timber harvest, and it appears probable that where habitat has been compromised, brook trout still have the edge over native trout populations.

On a three-mile hike in the Priest-Salmon Wilderness to make a collection on the South Salmo River, which joins the Pend Oreille River in British Columbia, I was within three miles of the BC border and seven miles of the Idaho border, the farthest northeast corner of Washington, the least populated area of the state. The remote Selkirk Mountains extend south from British Columbia diagonally across the Colville Forest. The Priest-Salmon Wilderness has very little human usage. Many of the trailheads have grizzly bear warnings, and many roads have been closed to protect grizzly bear habitat. Moose are common. This is a very different wildlife area than you might expect to find in Washington. As hoped, the native rainbow and westslope cutthroat found in the South Salmo were both abundant and distinctly colorful.

However, the most distinctive-appearing population of westslope cutthroat we sampled was in the uppermost headwaters of the South Fork Sanpoil River near the crest of Sherman Pass. Like some of the westslope cutthroat sampled in the Yakima drainage in 1998, the South Fork Sanpoil specimens displayed untypical spotting, resembling Yellowstone cutthroat. We expect, though, that DNA analysis will likely determine they are westslopes, as was found in the Yakima drainage.

Of several redband rainbow populations sampled in ’99, the Lone Ranch Creek population of the Kettle River
drainage stood out in its distinctive coloration. We collected the redbands from Lone Ranch Creek on a dark cloudy day in a heavily forested setting. Photographing individual specimens can be challenging under these types of conditions, but photo-documentation is an integral and important part of the project. The physical characteristics of individuals will be compared to the analysis of their DNA
samples to help future scientists in field identifications of westslope cutthroat and redband rainbow in Washington State.

West Branch Le Clerc

The research team photographed and took habitat measurements of each collection site. Documenting the current characteristics of the collection sites will help future researchers compare changes at the sites over time. We can only wish that we had more examples of what collection sites of native fishes were actually like when they were made 50 to 200 years ago. We hope that the Headwater Species Project will provide a baseline for long-term future comparisons -- both of the native species collected and the habitats that supported them -- for significant portions of Washington.

West Branch Le Clerc Cutthroat

Native trout populations are under threat throughout the Northwest. Westslope cutthroat in particular have declined dramatically throughout their historical range and should warrant special protection, despite the decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service last spring not to list them as Threatened under the ESA. Findings of the Headwater Species Project may help varied agencies protect areas where populations of wild native trout have been identified.

The Headwaters Species Project has received additional funding from the Bonneville Power Administration to continue fieldwork in 2000 and 2001. WT plans to survey headwater tributaries in the Wenatchee and Entiat basins, and possibly re-visit sites in the Klickitat drainage.

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