Tuesday, July 22, 2014

If You Love the Deschutes Please Read This

 This is pretty dire folks. It's hard to fathom this unless you have been to the Deschutes and actually witnessed it.
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While on my annual mid-May trek to the Deschutes I had great fun landing a stunning and assertive 18” redside. I caught many other fish, but none quite so memorable. Also memorable to me, my fishing buddies and our guides, was the scarcity of birds. The usual big ones were evident, such as ospreys, red tail hawks, turkey vultures and Canadian geese. But, noticeably missing were the habitual song and perching birds. Red wing blackbirds, well known harassers of streamside fishermen, were sporadic. Wrens, sparrows and Bullock’s orioles were infrequent. Most apparent was the near-nonexistence of swallows. No cliffs, no barns, no violet-greens. Those familiar with the monolithic rock in front of Dill Island know it always to be plastered with hundreds of swallow nests. Zero nests and not a single swallow in flight. The bird drought continued into the evening with no night hawks and few bats. These birds share a common characteristic. Each feeds upon the prolific insect populations of the Deschutes. Finding no food, obviously, birds will simply go elsewhere. Numerous guides say they’re noticing that the salmon fly hatch is now smaller and earlier in the season. They note some insects have simply disappeared, like PMDs, caddis and some mayflies. Why? Veterans of the Deschutes claim that over the last few years there has been an appreciable temperature shift in the lower river. They also say they are noticing pervasive growth of a golden brown algae blanketing large swaths of river bottom rocks. Some emphasize that this began soon after temperature changes occurred. Many of these insects begin their lives and spend their formative years attached to these rocks. It is conceivable alga is hindering oxygen from reaching the rock surfaces, so the insects cannot attach to them. If correct, the math is simple. No pupa stage leads to no mature stage, which leads to no insects, which leads to no food for birds…..and no food for fish. Sitting quietly in the corner is the one question no one desires confronting: If these bugs disappear what might
happen to the steelhead, salmon and trout in one of our nation’s inarguably premiere fisheries? Huge and varied insect populations are a principle reason the Deschutes enjoys so many fish per mile. People come from all over the world to pay homage to these prolific runs of fish. And, an ample slice of the Central Oregon economy derives its lifeblood from the Deschutes River. Presently, there are simply too many unanswered questions and too little evidence to yet reach conclusions. While personal and anecdotal observation can sound an early alarm, only with patience and empirical study can we produce credible conclusions and science-based solutions. Without caution we’ll never be assured of developing an effective and prudent remedy. Our colleagues at the recently formed Deschutes River Alliance (DRA) are rapidly moving beyond the anecdotal with scientific studies of key river indicators, precisely what is required to reach credible conclusions and recommendations. The Native Fish Society has committed to play an active role. We will support science-based conclusions and remedies. We attend every meeting. One of our River Stewards is on the DRA board of directors and our Bill Bakke is a member of their science advisory committee. In addition we have pledged to provide financial support and volunteers. Personally, I consider the Deschutes River one of Oregon’s three queens, joining sisters Rogue and Umpqua. As Oregonians, regardless of where we live or what we do, we cannot allow further decline in the health of this extraordinary river. How we respond to this potential catastrophe will speak volumes about our commitment to the river and to the state we love. It’s not hyperbole to say that left unchecked this could become an ecological and economic calamity. I’m challenging every fish and conservation group to likewise commit resources to confront this challenge.

 Mike Moody - Executive Director of Native Fish Society