The Okanagan River springs forth in British Columbia and flows south across the Canada – United States border where it swaps vowels and becomes the Okanogan River. The waterway continues south through north-central Washington forming the western boundary of the Colville Indian Reservation and eventually merges with the Columbia River.
The Okanogan River Basin
For centuries the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have celebrated the arrival of spring-run Chinook salmon to the Okanogan River in a traditional ceremony called the return of the “First Salmon.” The annual ritual honors and gives thanks to the salmon for returning to their historic waters.
Variations of the ceremony exist throughout the Northwest by tribes who have relied on salmon as a major part of their ancestry and heritage. Lewis and Clark chronicled the ceremony in their reports as they explored the area in 1806.
Spring Chinook Salmon. Photo courtesy Michael Humling, US Fish & Wildlife Service
The ceremony for the Colville Tribes is unique, however, because meaningful numbers of spring Chinook salmon have not returned to the Okanogan River in decades. Spring-run Chinook salmon in the Okanogan River vanished in the late 1930s due to dam construction, overfishing, and habitat destruction.
Only remnants of these salmon still exist in three tributaries in the Upper Columbia Basin and were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1999. But for the first time since their disappearance, members of the Confederated Colville Tribes have reason to hope these salmon may once again return to the Okanogan River.
At the request of the Colville Tribe, NOAA Fisheries used a provision in the ESA to designate an “experimental population” of spring-run Chinook salmon for the Okanogan River. The regulations approved this month are the first step in re-establishing a spring Chinook salmon run in the river.
The release of salmon will not only help repopulate the Okanogan River but will also bolster the overall numbers and viability of the endangered spring-run Chinook salmon in the Upper Columbia Basin.
Juvenile Chinook Salmon. Photo courtesy John McMillan
The experimental population will be developed from salmon in the Methow River sub-basin. These fish have a genetic makeup similar to those that once spawned in the Okanogan River. The hatchlings, or fry, will be raised in the Winthrop National Fish hatchery in the Methow Sub-basin until they reach several inches in length, or a pre-smolt stage.
The smolts, 200,000 of them, will be transported from the hatchery to acclimation ponds in the Okanogan River to “imprint” the odors of the river for several months. This imprinting will help guide the salmon back from the ocean in several years when they return to spawn and become the main attraction in the “First Salmon” ceremony.
Home page photograph of Juvenile Chinook Salmon courtesy John McMillan.