OREGON CITY – After years of frustration and the near-extinction of Willamette River wild winter steelhead, Oregon biologists believe they’ve cleared a major hurdle in the problematic control of sea lions at Willamette Falls.
And it’s not just the reduction in numbers, from 46 feeding on steelhead and salmon at the falls in 2018 to just six this spring.
“We have seen very little to no recruitment this year,” said Mike Brown, interim marine mammal program leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Translation: No young sea lions have followed the veterans upriver to learn an unwanted behavior.
Reason: There aren’t many veterans left.
Three of the six California sea lions at the falls this year were trapped and euthanized.
Two of them were repeat offenders, Brown said, including the largest ever removed, an animal weighing in at 1,042 pounds that spent all of its time hanging out in front of the fish ladder. Brown said he’s seen some typically larger Steller sea lions that didn’t weigh that much.
No Stellers were removed from the Willamette because the few present in the river were using haulouts (resting areas) farther downriver than where the state’s traps were located at Sportcraft Marina.
Brown said since 2008, a total of 376 California and Steller sea lions have been killed, captured and sent to zoos or died accidentally in a program largely concentrated at Bonneville Dam.
Only in recent years have Oregon and Washington had permission to trap and euthanize sea lions, including Stellers, in the Willamette River.
Steller sea lions are much larger and far more problematic to trap and handle, but Brown and his team now have the equipment in place.
Most of the trapping is done for this spring and summer, although Brown said operations will resume at Bonneville in September when some of the Stellers return to work on sturgeon and fall chinook.
A nosedive in numbers counts as a success in this case.
In 2021, eight California and one Steller sea lions were taken at the falls and 21 Californias and 37 Stellers were removed at Bonneville Dam.
This year, only three Californias were taken from the Willamette and 14 Californias and nine Stellers were trapped at Bonneville.
“It’s getting hard to trap on the Willamette,” Brown said of trying to target what few show up next year. “A couple will be a struggle because they don’t know where to haul out yet, but we’ll get them.”
The states can trap any tributary below Bonneville that has salmon or steelhead spawning grounds, but cannot trap in the mainstem below river mile 112.
Washington can try to trap sea lions in the Cowlitz and Lewis rivers, animals currently hauling out on docks at Rainier, where they can’t be trapped.
Meanwhile, steelhead at the falls are responding to the reduced attacks.
Counts at the falls this year were half-again better than 2021; still not up to the 10-year average, but much better than last year.
Federal innovation? No, that’s not an oxymoron in this case.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stepped up to the plate with a unique attempt to reduce predation on juvenile salmon and steelhead by gulls, cormorants and even pelicans (although the latter may be a bit of an ambitious target as you might imagine in a moment).
Firearms? Poison? Trapping? Nope.
The Corps has enlisted falconers to haze birds (mostly gulls) away from areas where migrating youngsters congregate.
Federal agents recently took a look at a gull colony on Miller Island, across from the mouth of the Deschutes River, and found numerous pit tags implanted in hatchery fish before their release to head to sea.
The numbers suggested a loss of “up to 13 percent” of endangered salmon species, with upper Columbia River steelhead hit the hardest.
“This was not cool,” read a very unbureaucratic announcement from the agency.
So falconers were contacted and contracted to frighten the birds away from some areas “until they decide not to return.”
The announcement lauded it (more typically bureaucratically) as a sustainable and “ecologically conscience” approach (whatever that’s supposed to mean).
“If these efforts are successful, we’ll expand falconry operations next year.
“And that, friends, is very cool.”
One last predator: Hats off to Trout Unlimited for its offer in its magazine to offer free advertising to any vehicle manufacturer promising to keep its vehicles from plunging into, through and across trout streams (or any stream) and instead show their owners involved in habitat work.
Short casts: For decades, I’ve marked my highest muddy water date as June 2, although I don’t recall which year it happened. But mid-June? With no end in sight? Aarghhh…Hunters looking for inside information on the publication of Oregon controlled hunt tag results won’t find it here, although I tried. They’ll be published on the due date, June 20. That’s as close as I could get to the powers-that-be.
What dirty water?
David Grant of Oregon City likes the early hours of the morning…before work…at the closed boat ramp in Clackamette Park…made to order for a bank angler.
That’s where he nailed this hatchery spring Chinook Wednesday morning well before punching in at 8 a.m.
Grant caught the salmon in the Clackamas River, which clears much faster than the Willamette.
He was tossing an orange Blue Fox spinner and was casting by himself when he landed it.
But by the time he finished gutting and rinsing the fish, he – or rather his spot at the ramp – was clogged with a dozen other anglers on the shoreline and two boats anchored a short distance away.