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A history in the making

Tribe releases salmon into the Malheur River

by Andi Harmon

Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Mark that date in history.

That’s the date the Burns Paiute Tribe released 127 Chinook salmon into the Malheur River, at the Malheur Ford in Logan Valley.

This event had been planned since the inception of the Natural Resources Department at the Burns Paiute Tribe (BPT) back in 1999, according to Jason Kesling, director of the BPT Natural Resources. The “top priority” of Natural Resources has been the purchasing of land and the restoration of hunting and fishing on tribal lands. The release of the Chinook salmon is the first step in returning fishing to the tribe’s cultural practices.

Members of the Burns Paiute Tribe spread out in the river. (Photos by Andi Harmon)
Members of the Burns Paiute Tribe spread out in the river. (Photos by Andi Harmon)

Last December, the Natural Resources team negotiated with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) for this release, and spoke with the governor for additional support. It is important to note this release will not have an ESA listing, according to Kesling. “It will not endanger the bull trout populations,” Kesling added, noting the salmon are from the Willamette River, which have the least pathogens.

Historically, Chinook salmon in the Malheur River would have come from the Snake River. In 1919, the Warm Springs Dam was built, stopping the salmon from returning to the main stem to spawn. Since then, the Beulah Reservoir Dam, which blocks the North Fork and the Hells Canyon Dam have further prevented returning salmon from the ocean.

The tribe hopes to one day see the return of spawning salmon to the Malheur River. Currently, Hell’s Canyon is relicensing, with an addition of adding potential fisheries to their operation. Given the size of the dam, fish ladders are not possible; however, fish could be caught at the dam and placed in trucks to make the trip around the dam to be released again to continue their journey upstream.

At the May 25 release, tribal members were allowed to fish using traditional methods, such as spears, nets, or baskets. Most used spears, with around 20 fish harvested for this first round of fishing. Another 60-70 fish will be released in June, and tribal members as well as the public, are allowed to fish for the salmon. Only tribal members are allowed to fish on tribal lands for this fishery, but the salmon could end up anywhere in the system for catching possibilities.

It was evident, from all the smiles and laughter, this event was a success. “It was priceless,” stated Brenda Sam, tribal member. “Historical memories are being made.”

Youth Services Coordinator Elise Adams was especially pleased, seeing elders and youth together. “It was awesome!” exclaimed Adams. “This was a historic event. It brought pride and joy to the Paiute people. We had ages from 1 to 97 here.”

Indeed, the general consensus was one of pure joy. The overall feeling of the day was nothing short of special, if not spiritual.

Charlotte Rodrique, head of tribal council, said, “The tribe appreciates the cooperation with Natural Resources and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The tribe is hopeful this relationship will blossom to other areas, restoring hunting and fishing in traditional tribal ways.”

Additionally, Rodrique was pleased to see youth and elders together, learning and interacting and sharing in the experience. “To see the youth learn, becoming fishermen, was a wonderful sight,” she said.

This event, and another release coming in June, is a one-time fishery. Interest from the tribe and the public will determine if another event will be planned for the future. If you would like to see this event continue, please contact the Burns Paiute Tribe’s Natural Resources Department (541-573-8087) or your local ODFW office.

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