WINTHROP — A letter from the Colville Tribes “vigorously” opposing a plan by the Yakama Nation to build an acclimation pond for coho north of Winthrop puts a new twist in salmon recovery in the region.
The comment from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation was one of less than a dozen others submitted by residents and Okanogan County Commissioners on an environmental analysis of the proposal to build a one-third acre pond to hold young coho before releasing them into the adjacent Chewuch River. It asks the Forest Service not to issue a permit, and the Bonneville Power Administration not to fund it.
Their reason is not environmental, but territorial.
“Since the mid-1990s, the Yakama’s Mid-Columbia Coho Restoration Program has continually moved north into the Colville Tribes’ traditional territories,” said the April 18 letter signed by Colville Tribal Chairman John Sirois. “The Methow Valley is named for the Methow Tribe — our places, names and our language continue to define this area and tie us to these lands,” it continued.
The letter criticizes the Yakamas for hindering some Colville Tribes’ restoration projects, mentioning that the Yakamas refused permission to harvest sturgeon larvae to help with sturgeon recovery, and the fact that the Colvilles had to fight in court for their right to fish for salmon in Icicle Creek in Chelan County.
Paul Ward, who manages the Yakama Nation’s fishery programs, said the Yakama tribe is assessing the Colvilles’ comment, and is not ready to respond to it.
In an interview, Sirois also criticized state and federal agencies for continuing to work with the Yakamas on projects within the Colvilles’ traditional territories.
“They certainly know who the appropriate tribe is. We’ve reminded them over and over again,” he said.
Sirois said that the Colvilles have long worked to restore salmon populations in the upper Columbia River and its tributaries, and that they would welcome the opportunity to pick up the Yakama coho restoration projects.
“I don’t know if they seek to pit tribes against one another. We just think the agencies should work with the appropriate tribe,” Sirois added.
The acclimation pond is just one small part of a the Yakama Nation’s multi-million dollar coho restoration program, which was approved for funding last summer by the BPA after three years of study and a 367-page environmental impact statement.
For more than 15 years, the Yakamas have been mass-producing coho in hatcheries and releasing them from ponds along the Wenatchee and Methow rivers. The plan approved last summer calls for reestablishing a naturally spawning population by releasing millions of coho smolts in the two river systems, with the goal of developing a self-sustaining population by 2028.
In his letter, Sirois wrote, “We welcome the recovery of Coho in our traditional lands, but we insist that the BPA and USFS do this work with the correct parties. The Colville Tribes will construct, operate, and maintain any and all salmon recovery acclimation ponds in our current and traditional lands.”
Officials with both the BPA and U.S. Forest Service said they are taking the comment very seriously.
BPA spokesman Kevin Wingert said his agency will evaluate every comment received, and respond to them during its process of issuing a final decision.
When asked if this comment could stop the project, he said, “It’s certainly become part of the process, and will be taken into consideration.” He declined to comment on whether the BPA was previously aware of the Colvilles’ concerns.
District Ranger Mike Liu, who heads the Methow Valley Ranger District where the acclimation pond is proposed, said it’s only been the in last few years that the Yakamas have become active in some of the salmon recovery projects in the Methow Valley.
“I wouldn’t say it caught us out of the blue,” he said of the Colvilles’ concern. “But we thought the two sovereign nations had been talking together, and working through any issues.”
He said the BPA conducted the environmental analysis for the project, and the Forest Service will continue to provide information to the BPA, since that action does not favor one tribe over the other.
“We want to respect the rights of both nations,” he said. “We don’t want to be playing favorites, or get in the middle of their concerns.”
Liu said he plans to invite the Colville Tribes to visit the site and talk about their concerns so he can gain a better understanding.
He added that a Forest Service decision about whether to issue a special permit allowing the pond at that site could come as soon as next spring. “Our hope is that, by the time we reach a decision point, there would be some resolution between the Yakamas and the Colvilles.”