NISQUALLY (June 20, 2003) — A river is more than just a line on a map; every side channel, slough and tributary stream helps create a complex and living river. The Nisqually Indian Tribe and the South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group are surveying off-channel habitat in the Nisqually River basin to target areas for protection and restoration. The information gathered during these surveys will guide the tribe and enhancement group in decisions on future habitat projects.

“Most of what is called off-channel habitat was actually created by the river itself,” said Chris Ellings, biologist with the enhancement group. As the Nisqually River migrates back and forth across its floodplain, it leaves behind remnants of former river channels. These remnants, often still connected to the mainstem Nisqually, are important rearing habitat for juvenile salmon and trout. “These off-channel areas are generally calmer than the river itself, and provide some of the best juvenile habitat,” said Florian Leischner, habitat biologist with the tribe.

Last winter Leischner and Ellings made a series of float trips down the Nisqually River to assess the river’s overall off-channel habitat. “We found several areas, including a site created during a mudslide only seven years ago, that hadn’t been looked at closely,” said Leischner. “The best way to really get an idea of what kind of habitat is out there is to see it first hand.” They also used aerial photography to see what kind of decent habitat might inaccessible behind dikes, levies or culverts.

“Juvenile salmon utilize off-channel habitat for rearing, growing and feeding,” said Florian Leischner, habitat biologist with the Nisqually Indian Tribe. “Reconnecting off-channel habitat will improve the productivity of the Nisqually River.”

Other areas that may only be connected to the main river channel during floods are also important. “Off-channel habitat is especially important during winter months. If it hasn’t been damaged or cut off from the river, it can provide safe harbor for young salmon during damaging floods,” said Ellings. “Because the flood raises the water level of the river, which otherwise could be damaging to salmon, it also reconnects the river to these calmer off-channel areas that salmon can access.”

“Because these areas are only connected to the mainstem during floods and are usually further away from the river, their value isn’t readily apparent,” said Ellings. “This often means that they are lost to urban development.” Coho salmon, cutthroat trout, and some chinook spend a significant amount of their life in the river before they head out to sea, and therefore depend on the health of off-channel habitat. Puget Sound chinook are listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act. “Food, such as aquatic insects, is very abundant in the off-channel habitat,” said Ellings. “These off-channel sites are vital to young salmon if they are to survive to adulthood.”

After making follow up trips to specific sites, checking for fish usage and gathering other data they will prioritize various projects by their value to recovering salmon and their cost efficiency. “Because of the limited amount of money for salmon recovery, prioritizing restoration projects is vital,” said Jeanette Dorner, Salmon Recovery Program Manager for the Nisqually Tribe. “By making sure we do the most valuable projects first, we can stretch our recovery dollars.”

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For more information, contact: Florian Leischner, Nisqually Tribe, Habitat Biologist, (360) 438-8687. Christopher Ellings, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group, Habitat Biologist, (360) 754-3588, ext 101. Emmett O’Connell, Information Officer, NWIFC, (360) 438-1181, ext. 392, eoconnell@nwifc.org

Nisqually River Fast Facts

  • The Nisqually River originates at the Nisqually Glacier on the south slope of Mt. Rainier and flows west to Alder Lake and then northwest between Pierce and Thurston counties to Puget Sound at Nisqually Reach.
  • The Nisqually River drains over 700 square miles of land, nearly a half million acres.
  • The hill region east of the mouth of the Nisqually River was touted as a location for a major city in the 1890s. The projected city was called Rosston in 1891 for the Ross family who lived nearby. In 1892 the name Traverton for George Traver was attached to the site. Later plans showed it as “Nisqually City”.
  • The Nisqually is the only river with its headwaters in a National Park (Rainier National Park) and its mouth in a National Wildlife Refuge (Nisqually).