DAYTON, WA - A log dam built by recreationists on a tributary of the Tucannon River in southeast Washington killed a bull trout, a fish which is federally protected as a threatened species.
Earlier this month Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) fish biologists found the dead bull trout impinged in the logs of a five-foot-high dam on Panjab Creek near the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness Area in the Umatilla National Forest, southeast of Dayton in Columbia County.
The fish, which was radio-tagged for monitoring, had spawned upstream of the dam before it was built and apparently tried to descend the stream to overwinter in the middle or lower Tucannon, said WDFW district fish biologist Glen Mendel of Dayton. The fish had no other signs of ill health or damage except from its final struggle in the log dam, Mendel said.
"This is technically a 'take' of a fish listed under the federal Endangered Species Act or 'ESA' because of an illegal dam," said WDFW enforcement sergeant Ken Jundt of Walla Walla. "It's considered a Class B Misdemeanor and is punishable by up to $25,000 fine and/or six months imprisonment."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) enforces the Endangered Species Act, and its law enforcement agents, with help from state agencies like WDFW, may investigate any instance of harm to a listed species.
Mendel said the real crime isn't just the loss of the one fish, but the block to fish passage and future reproduction in general that such illegal dams pose, not just in Washington but throughout the Pacific Northwest region.
"These kinds of dams, built to create swimming or fishing holes, have become more common in recent years," Mendel said. "We find one or more on Panjab Creek each year and elsewhere in the Tucannon River, Mill Creek near Walla Walla, and other places where people play in the water. Areas with spring Chinook salmon and bull trout are particularly susceptible to these passage blocks from recreationists' dams built in the summer because they affect fall spawning success and distribution."
Mendel said very few bull trout redds, or spawning nests, were found on the Panjab Creek system last year and this year, likely because of recreationists building dams.
"They're sturdy enough that they don't easily wash out and can cause bank erosion when higher flows come in the fall or winter," he said.
Any kind of structure that alters the flow of a fish-bearing waterway, Jundt said, whether it's built by hand for temporary recreation or with equipment for permanent use, requires a Hydraulic Project Approval permit from WDFW.
The remnants of a camp adjacent to the recently discovered log dam were within 75 feet of the water, making it illegal by U.S. Forest Service standards to protect streamside habitat.
"Camping rules are spelled out in our 'Respect the River' signs throughout the forest," said U.S. Forest Service fish biologist Del Groat of the Pomeroy Ranger District, "but obviously some recreationists either haven't read them or don't understand the significance."
The illegal camp site was heavily littered with shot-up cans and other debris, including packaging materials for snelled fishing hooks. Groat said that evidence suggested the dam was built to try pooling fish for easy fishing. Panjab Creek, like all Tucannon River tributaries, is closed to all fishing year-round.
"We plan to develop educational programs patterned after our 'Respect the River' theme," Groat said, "and to increase the visibility of our signs to hopefully get the message understood."
Mendel noted that whether dams are built for fishing or simply for swimming holes, they all hurt fish and fish reproduction.
"We need help and cooperation from recreationists to make sure there are fish in the future for everyone to enjoy," he said.