Things with Feathers: The Elwha River; California condors

By Fjothr Odinsdottir Lokakvan

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul.
And sings the tune
Without the words,
and never stops at all.

–Emily Dickinson

One of the things that helps keep me motivated, reminds me that not everything is terrible, and it is not a waste of my time to try and improve what I can, is finding stories about other people doing things to improve the world. This provides a kind of hope that is not merely wishful thinking, but a hope that is based in evidence that things can be better than they are now.

I’ve been saving those things for myself in a “hopes” tag, because sometimes I need to go back through it and remind myself that there’s more to life than Shell moving to drilling in the Arctic, and I’m planning on making a post every month here with two or three items. (It’s exciting! There are a lot of cool things going on!)

Here are a couple of my favorites from the last year or so:

The Elwha River dam removal

From 2011 to late 2014, the largest dam removal project in history took place: freeing the Elwha River in Washington from two hydroelectric dams, one that had been in place for 100 years.

The project has been done slowly, so that the sediment trapped behind the dams would move into the river, and then out to sea, in a somewhat controlled fashion – too much sediment in water is bad for the health of fish and other creatures, and there was massive amount of sediment trapped behind the dams. The changes taking place are going to be closely watched, to see how the watershed recovers, which will probably affect decisions about future dam removal projects in other places. It is already apparent that rivers and their associated watersheds can recover at some of their “lost” functions quite quickly once dams are gone:

So much sediment, once trapped in reservoirs behind two hydroelectric dams, has flowed downstream that it has dramatically reshaped the river’s mouth, replenished eroding beaches and created new habitat for marine creatures not observed there in years.

Meanwhile, Chinook salmon and steelhead have been streaming into stretches of the Elwha River and its tributaries previously blocked by the Elwha Dam, which stood for nearly a century before it came down in 2012.

With the first dam gone, the ocean-migrating fish have been swimming as far upriver as they can. Scientists have observed them at the base of the second 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam about 13 miles upstream, as if they want to continue on.

As they move into areas previously blocked, salmon and steelhead are acting as a fertilizer for the ecosystem, delivering marine nutrients to river otters and other wildlife.

. . .

Just three years into dam removal, scientists say they’ve been surprised at how quickly changes are happening.

The most stunning change is taking place at the river’s mouth. Millions of cubic yards of sediment held behind the dams have flowed downriver and pushed the estuary out about a quarter mile. A once rocky, cobblestone scene is now sandy beach — ideal for forage fish, juvenile salmon and shellfish.

“New estuary is literally being created. It’s wild to watch,” said Anne Shaffer, marine biologist with the Coastal Watershed Institute in Port Angeles. “Fish are using this freshly formed habitat, and they’re using it with such abundance.”

Marine creatures such as eulachon, or candlefish, and Dungeness crab have been documented in the estuary for the first time in decades.

“I was surprised by a lot of things, but I was stunned by how fast the estuary has expanded,” said Robert Elofson, river restoration director with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. The tribe is a partner with the National Park Service in the $325 million river-restoration project.

The mouth of the river, with new land being formed by sediment. (photo from OPB article)

Trees and other plants are recolonizing the land that was once the bottom of the “lakes” formed behind the dams, and additional work is being done by people to restore trees and plants along the river. While the dams were in place, the water held behind them was warmer than the river in its wild state was, which is another harm done to fish like salmon and steelhead, which cannot survive if water temperatures rise too high.

Before the dams were built, the Elwha was one of the Northwest’s great natural resources, hosting steelhead and all five species of Pacific salmon: sockeye, coho, chum, pink, and the legendary Elwha chinook, which commonly reached 100 pounds. Ten salmon runs — each genetically adapted to a specific seasonal migration — meant that the Elwha was full of migrating fish year-round, some 400,000 annually. . .

But the Elwha dam put a stop to that. Despite official warnings, the builder violated an 1890 law requiring fish ladders on dams, substituting a hatchery instead. Other dam builders followed suit, blocking salmon runs throughout the Northwest. That end-run determined state policies for decades, giving rise to a hatchery-dependent fishery during the hydroelectric boom of the 1920s to 1960s. . .

These declines, along with a 1910 prohibition against fishing, deprived the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe of a key food source and cultural touchstone. After their fishing rights were restored in the 1970s, the tribe objected to licensing the dams, citing their impact on the salmon fishery and a poor safety report predicting the Elwha dam might fail during high flood conditions. (source)

So, once their fishing rights were restored in the 1970s, the tribe pushed for the dams’ removal. They were joined by conservation groups, and in 1992, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act. This gave the Interiors Department the authority to buy the dams and remove them if salmon restoration needed it. In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a plan to help with the dam removal that involved managing sediment so fish would survive its release, and in 2011, the actual removal began.

When I look at the timelines here, some of it is kind of daunting. It took, what, 15-20 years to get legal approval to take the necessary steps, and then another 19 years before the first dam removal started.

But when I look at what has happened since that started? How quickly fish and plants and other wildlife are returning, now that one “wrong” element in their landscape is gone?? It gives me such hope for other places.

 The king in feathers

I remember when I was a child or young teenager, reading some magazine article about the efforts being made to save the California condor from extinction. There were photos of the condor chicks, being raised by humans, who put condor-shaped puppets over their hands, so the chicks would see condor shape and color when being fed, and not imprint on the humans.

As much as I am a freak about birds, I didn’t give the condors much thought for quite a long time. Occasionally I’d hear something about it – the efforts were having some success! – but it wasn’t really on my radar.

Last summer, I made it to the Oregon Zoo; I’d been meaning to since moving back to Portland, but hadn’t gotten around to it. There were articles in the news earlier in the year about how the new condor exhibit was finally open. Well, I sure wasn’t going to go and NOT look the condors! They’re birds after all, how could I pass that up?

I was not expecting to be instantly overwhelmed with emotion when I caught sight of the first one in the enclosure (if I’d had the zoo to myself, I would have just sat down and sobbed). I stayed and watched him for quite a while, while he most certainly watched us, and I have honestly never felt such presence from a bird before. Or any other animal. Condors are big, but it wasn’t just his size. He was intelligent. He spent a lot of time up against the fence, reaching through it to pull at plants outside (which were just like the plants inside the enclosure), but he also had a perch that positioned him to be viewed very well from inside one of the exhibit shelters – and I think he knew he is an impressive, commanding bird. There were two other condors in the enclosure, but they hung out on some tall perches near the back the entire time I was there.

California condor at the Oregon Zoo. (photo by Fjothr)
Lord of the aviary. (photo by Fjothr)

The basic story goes like this: Condors once ranged all up and down the western part of what is now the United States. They were native to Oregon, among other places. But they died because they’d eat animals that had either been poisoned (like big predators that early settlers didn’t want around) or killed with lead shot (still a threat to today’s wild-flying condors), or because they were just outright killed. DDT and ingestion of bits plastic were other threats to their survival (plastic is still a problem).

They suffered such harm that by the mid-1980s, there were only 22 left in the wild.

They were all captured and put into captive breeding programs. These programs have done well enough that over 200 have been released into the wild again, in some very small areas, with another nearly-200 in captivity. Here’s more about the condors from the Oregon Zoo.

There is a long way to go before it’s likely they will soar over the skies they did 150 years ago, but the fact that it is possible to help a population on the verge of going extinct from crossing that boundary is a good thing.

Progress can happen. It just takes time.

That’s what I’ve got for this month. Please share additional examples in the comments!