Steelhead Returning to the Elwha River

Spawning surveys in the Elwha River show that steelhead are taking advantage of the river’s newly opened habitat.

For the past six years, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, with federal and local partners, has been surveying the river and its tributaries for steelhead nests (redds) and spawning adults. The surveys have been conducted annually between February and July, following the removal of the fish-blocking Elwha Dam in 2012 and Glines Canyon Dam in 2014.

“The purpose is to document where the steelhead are spawning in the Elwha River as they access newly opened areas of historic habitat,” said Mike McHenry, the tribe’s habitat program manager. The tribe is working with fisheries biologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Olympic National Park, U.S. Geological Survey and Trout Unlimited.

The 2017 surveys brought to light several important milestones for the recovering river:

  • Steelhead voluntarily made their way upriver to spawn in tributaries;
  • Steelhead redds were discovered farther upstream than before in Little River, a major tributary to the Elwha River; and
  • More steelhead spawned above the former Glines Canyon dam site than in any previous year.

“It appears that steelhead are passing the former boulder blockage at Glines Canyon and moving farther upstream in the watershed,” McHenry said. “These observations suggest that the distribution of spawning winter steelhead is likely to expand as the river’s habitat conditions improve and steelhead populations increase.”

The annual surveys, conducted by foot, start near the mouth of the river and end at river mile 18, within Olympic National Park at Long Creek. Survey data is correlated with data from the tribe’s sonar program, which counts the number of fish returning to the river between June and September.

The steelhead are likely a mix of natural-origin fish, and fish from the tribe’s captive broodstock program that was put in place to keep the population viable during dam removal, McHenry said.

A pair of steelhead make their way up the Elwha River. Photo: John McMillan, Trout Unlimited

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