I had never heard of bull trout before I moved to Leavenworth. They looked like Dolly Varden char to me, covered in the same pretty pinkish polka dots.
Where I came from in Alaska, Dollies are common. But I quickly learned that bull trout really are different, and so is their story.
Bull trout are genetically distinct from Dolly Varden. They are found throughout the Columbia Basin.
More than any other fish in our waters, they are tied to temperature.
As Judy Neibauer, a biologist at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Central Washington field office, said, “Cold, clean, and connected: that’s what they need.” In other words, icy cold water free of pollution and with plenty of room to move.
In Yakima’s North Fork Tieton River, bull trout are struggling with one of those three essential needs: connectivity. Jason Romine, lead biologist for the Yakima office of the Mid-Columbia Fish & Wildlife Conservation Office, is helping to overcome some of the problems. The MCFWCO is funded for this project by the Bureau of Reclamation.
The goal is to mitigate for the impact of Clear Creek Dam, a Bureau of Reclamation project. “Our main goal is to do things that improve the status of steelhead and bull trout in the Yakima Basin,” Jason told me.
There are three populations of bull trout in the Clear Creek Dam area, he said, one above the dam and two below.
Bull trout are often highly mobile, and these particular fish leave headwater spawning grounds in late summer. They exit Clear Lake via a fish ladder into Rimrock Reservoir where they feed on kokanee and other fishes. Fish moving down the ladder around Clear Creek Dam can get out — but they can’t get back up.
The “ladder” is really a series of steep pools and weirs. And the warm water from the top of Clear Creek Lake flows into it, creating a thermal barrier for bull trout as well as a physical one: They prefer water below 15 degrees Celsius, and the surface water in the lake is 19-20 C in the summer.
A new fish ladder is being designed; but in the meantime, Jason works with partners to capture bull trout at the base of the Clear Creek dam. Their aim is to transport them upstream of the dam so they can reach spawning grounds.
Fish are captured, measured, tagged, then held overnight until genetic results for each fish are received. A fin clip is overnight-mailed to the Abernathy Fish Technology Center, where the natal stream of each fish is identified.
If the trout belongs to the population above the dam, Jason and his colleagues promptly haul it above the dam for release. This has been going on since 2012.
As with nearly everything the US Fish & Wildlife Service does, this project is all about partnership. Jason’s office is in the same building as the Bureau of Reclamation. Their program offers fisheries expertise for the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project and other restoration projects in the basin, in cooperation with Yakama Nation, environmental organizations, irrigation districts and federal, state, county and city governments.
The work group’s purpose is to create a plan for the Yakima River Basin that balances irrigation and wildlife needs.
This kind of work is complex, but rewarding. “We do good work,” Jason said. “We’ve made a name for ourselves. Come to us and we’ll do it.”
That’s a good reputation to have.
Julia Pinnix is visitor services manager for Leavenworth Fisheries Complex.