Tribe, State, and Federal Partners Team up to in Historical Efforts to Restore Salmon Habitat

On May 1, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries, and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe announced they had signed agreements to restore Chinook salmon to the mountains north of Redding, California.

The agreements support a joint effort to return Chinook salmon to their original spawning areas in cold mountain rivers now blocked by Shasta Reservoir in northern California. The goal is an ecological and cultural restoration that will one day restore fishing opportunities for the tribe that depended on the once-thriving salmon population as a food source.

The tribe signed a co-management agreement with the

CDFW and a co-stewardship agreement with NOAA Fisheries, reflecting how the two agencies describe accords with tribes. This three-way collaboration is a historic achievement that advances our common goals.

The agreements call for the agencies to include the tribe in decisions for salmon that have significant meaning for the Winnemem Wintu. Three years of drought have taken a toll on endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, which migrate and spawn in the lower Sacramento River. The river can warm to temperatures that are lethal to their eggs.

During the summer of 2022, the tribe joined state and federal agencies in pursuing urgent measures to improve the odds for winter-run Chinook salmon, including transporting 40,000 fertilized eggs to the cold McCloud River above Shasta Reservoir. Many hatched, swimming down the river for the first time since Shasta Dam was completed in the early 1940s. The tribe joined agency staff in collecting the juvenile fish before reaching the reservoir, populated with predators. Biologists then moved them downstream around the reservoir to continue to the ocean.

“This is [a] historic agreement that moves us one step closer to our goal of returning wild salmon from New Zealand and creating a volitional passage around Shasta Dam,” said Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk in a press release from May 1. “It’s incredible that we can share this vision with CDFW and NOAA. We have a long way to go, but there are now more good people working on it.”

The new agreements call for the tribe to contribute traditional ecological knowledge, sharing insight as the tribe once did for Livingston Stone, who established the nation’s first Chinook salmon hatchery on the McCloud in 1872.

The agencies agreed to make the tribe a “co-equal decision-maker,” and CDFW has awarded a $2.3 million grant to support the tribe’s participation in salmon measures. Agencies also agreed to evaluate the potential reintroduction of Chinook salmon that were moved from the McCloud River in California to streams in New Zealand more than 100 years ago and have vital cultural and spiritual significance for the tribe.

In 2022, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) tested an experimental system for collecting juvenile winter-run salmon that hatch in the McCloud River as part of a larger-scale future reintroduction program. DWR plans continued testing late this year. In addition, recovery plans for the species call for an ongoing program of annual transplants of winter-run Chinook salmon to spawning habitat in the McCloud River, where they will be safer from the rising temperatures of climate change.

NOAA Fisheries recognizes highly endangered winter-run Chinook salmon as a “Species in the Spotlight” needing focused recovery actions. Returning the species to the McCloud River is a central element of the 2021-2025 Action Plan, also listed under California’s state endangered species act.

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