Wind River Watershed Project

The Wind River Watershed Project is a collaborative effort to recover Wind River wild steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss). The Wind River Watershed Project includes four cooperating agencies that formed a partnership in the early 1990s: Underwood Conservation District (UCD), United States Geological Survey (USGS), United States Forest Service (USFS), and Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW).

With funding from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the project partners conduct monitoring and research on partner_logos_v2steelhead populations, attempt to identify habitat factors that limit population growth, and work to restore degraded habitats and watershed processes.  Project roles include: monitoring and research on steelhead populations (USGS and WDFW), evaluating physical habitat conditions (UCD and USFS), assessing watershed health (all), reconnecting habitat (UCD and USFS), reducing road sediment sources (USFS), rehabilitating riparian corridors, floodplains, and channel geometry (UCD and USFS), and promoting local watershed stewardship (UCD).

Click on each agency’s link below to learn more about the specific ongoing work of each partner.


Wind River Habitat and Fish Populations

The Wind River drains a 582 km2 watershed that begins in Washington’s Cascade Mountains and enters the Columbia River 10 km above Bonneville Dam within the Columbia Gorge.  Wild summer steelhead are the primary native fish species present in the watershed, as a result of naturally difficult migratory conditions caused by Shipherd Falls, which is located near the river mouth. The falls was historically passable only by summer steelhead and potentially lamprey. A constructed fishway now enables additional fish passage, however only wild steelhead and spring Chinook from the Carson National Fish Hatchery are allowed to pass usm_steelheadpstream.

Historical habitat degradation, releases of hatchery summer steelhead, and harvest of wild steelhead, in addition to factors outside of the watershed, all contributed to the decline of Wind River steelhead. In 1998, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed the steelhead of the Lower Columbia River as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In 1997, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife rated the status of the Wind River summer run steelhead as Critical. Due to the status of this stock, Wind River summer steelhead have the highest priority for recovery and restoration in the State of Washington’s Lower Columbia Steelhead Conservation Initiative.

Harvest of wild steelhead ended in mid-1980s and releases of hatchery steelhead ended in the mid-1990s, leaving habitat degradation as the primary factor limiting populations in the watershed. Historical habitat degradation was primarily associated with land use changes that reduced the abundance of instream woody debris, caused sedimentation and scour, and reduced channel stability and habitat complexity, particularly in alluvial reaches.  In addition, the 6.7-meter tall Hemlock Dam on lower Trout Creek provided poor fish passage for adult steelhead, disrupted sediment transport, and inundated riverine habitat upstream until its removal in 2009.


Click on WDFW’s link to read about the status of steelhead in the Wind River Watershed.


Cannavina Fish Passage Project, completed in 2015
Within the Wind River watershed, as well as throughout its district area, Underwood Conservation District (UCD) works with willing landowners to improve conditions in stream habitat and nearby lands. UCD partners with all types of landowners, whether public or private, and helps facilitate coordinated projects in order to achieve larger, combined natural resource goals. UCD staff is often involved in educational workshops, classes or site tours to facilitate information-sharing and learning for landowners and the community at large regarding current natural resource concerns and solutions.

UCD staff also provide non-regulatory technical assistance to individual property owners with questions or concerns regarding their land and water resources. UCD provides a variety of financial incentives or project assistance to accomplish natural resource improvements, involving work such as noxious weed control, native plant establishment, fish habitat enhancement, livestock improvements, or soil health. In addition, UCD monitors stream temperature and flow, in part because the Wind River is listed as impaired due to high water temperature by the Washington Department of Ecology.

Over the past several years, UCD’s efforts in the watershed have focused on restoring fish habitat and passage on tributary streams, including three phases of habitat improvements on the Little Wind River and the Cannavina Creek Fish Passage project. UCD is developing and envisions leading several more habitat restoration projects in future years. UCD is often able to leverage Bonneville Power Administration funds with other funding sources, such as support from Clark-Skamania Flyfishers, State Salmon Recovery Funding Board, and other competitive grant programs.  Private landowners and community members are encouraged to contact UCD to learn about our services and discuss potential projects.

CLICK HERE to return to the home page and learn more about UCD.

The Gifford Pinchot National Forest (GPNF) manages the forest and streams within the national forest portion of the Wind River watershed.  The GPNF conducts habitat surveys on fishbearing streams, monitors water temperature and streamflow at key locations in the watershed, and conducts habitat restoration where needed to restore watershed processes and healthy habitats in streams and riparian areas.

Forest and stream management within the national forest is done under the guidance of the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP).  Under the NWFP the Wind River is designated a “Tier I Key Watershed”, and as such is the highest priority for aquatic habitat restoration.  Restoration priorities on national forest lands are developed from a combination of field surveys, watershed analysis, and guidance in the Lower Columbia River Salmon Recovery Plan.

Aquatic restoration on national forest lands is intended to restore access to previously occupied habitats, and to re-establish natural processes that will ultimately provide complex and robust habitats, that will be sustained and replenished over time.  In the near term, the USFS uses native materials in concert with established principles of natural river processes to improve habitat quality and diversity in forest streams and riparian forests.

Currently, the USFS has identified Trout Creek and Trapper Creek/Middle Wind River as priority subwatersheds for restoration within the Wind River watershed.  The intent is to complete all essential restoration activities in these drainages in the next 5 to 10 years.

CLICK HERE for more information on the USFS Gifford Pinchot National Forest Mt Adams Area.

Research by U.S. Geological Survey in the Wind River watershed focuses on wild juvenile steelhead behavior including rearing and migration strategies. USGS is investigating steelhead behavior and use of various habitats within the river. By tagging juvenile steelhead with microchip tags (known as Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags, similar to the type of tag a pet may have), researchers can follow individual fish through their lives and learn about the varied behaviors they exhibit prior to migrating to the ocean as smolts. This includes migration through the year to different habitats, age at migration, and growth patterns. Some behaviors or habitats may provide an advantage or be crucial during times of stress.

Movement and growth of PIT-tagged juvenile steelhead is studied by recapturing them instream, or at smolts traps operated by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, or by detecting them at PIT tag antenna sites within the watershed. There are six sites in the watershed with detection antennas in the river or tributaries. These sites also detect PIT-tagged adult steelhead, providing data about their populations and movements. Juvenile and adult steelhead data help assess the effects of habitat restoration projects by partners at the U.S. Forest Service and Underwood Conservation District.

USGS PIT-tagged fish are also detected at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River as juveniles and adults, providing data on their behavior outside the Wind River watershed. By learning about steelhead habits, habitat, and populations USGS can provide information to managers of fisheries and watersheds to benefit wild steelhead populations and habitat in the future.

Prior research by U.S. Geological Survey has focused on juvenile steelhead populations in tributary areas of the watershed and on potential influences of introduced spring Chinook salmon in the watershed:

  Biotic and Abiotic Influences on Abundance and Distribution of Nonnative Chinook Salmon and Native ESA-Listed Steelhead in the Wind River, Washington 

Growth, Condition Factor, and Bioenergetics Modeling Link Warmer Stream Temperatures Below a Small Dam to Reduced Performance of Juvenile Steelhead  

CLICK HERE for more information on the USGS Columbia River Research Laboratory.

Within the watershed work group, WDFW collaborates with USGS to accomplish population monitoring and research. WDFW has been responsible for estimating Wind River natural-origin steelhead spawner abundance and smolt abundance, as well as adult-to-smolt, and smolt-to-adult survival. To accomplish this, WDFW established a life-cycle monitoring program. This program has  estimated smolt production in three headwater sub-basins (Trout Creek, Panther Creek, and the Wind River above Carson Hatchery) as well as at the mouth of the watershed since the mid-1990s, adult total population abundance using a mark-resight (snorkel count) approach since 2000, and adult abundance in Trout Creek since 1992. Through the collection of age data from scales and the use of PIT tags to track individual tagged fish, WDFW has developed methods to report important population metrics including adult recruits per spawner, smolts per spawner, and smolt to adult return (survival) rate.WDFW image for website2 (2)

WDFW Objectives:

1. Develop annual estimates of abundance in the Wind River basin for:

    a. Adult steelhead

    b. Smolts (juvenile steelhead)

2. Collect adult and juvenile steelhead life history information to estimate the overall and life-stage specific survival of cohorts:

    a. Smolt to adult survival

    b. Adult to adult survival (spawners per spawner)

    c. Juvenile recruits per spawner

3. Determine the spatial structure of steelhead populations

    a. Estimate the abundance of smolts within four production areas (Trout Creek, Panther Creek, the upper Wind, and the mainstem below those sub-basins)

    b. Estimate adult abundance within one sub-basin (Trout Creek) and at a watershed scale.

WDFW Results:

The population abundance of adult steelhead above Shipherd Falls has ranged from approximately 200-1500, and smolt production has ranged from approximately 8,000-40,000. The greatest source of inter-annual variability in adult abundance has been variable smolt-to-adult survival, which has ranged from 1-7% measured from the Wind River out to sea and back to Bonneville Dam.  Although adult abundance has varied considerably, smolt production has been less variable because more smolts have been produced per capita when spawner abundance has been low.

CLICK HERE for more detailed information, found in WDFW’s annual BPA contract reports.

CLICK HERE for the most recent report in 2016.

CLICK HERE for WDFW escapement data for Wind River Summer Steelhead.

CLICK HERE for Fishing Regulations.

CLICK HERE to find emergency regulations for any in-season updates.

CLICK HERE for more information on BPA's Fish & Wildlife Program.