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Spring Chinook return to Lapwai and Sweetwater Creek after almost a century

The Nez Perce tribe released 200,000 juvenile spring Chinook from a hatchery into the Sweetwater creek.

BOISE, Idaho — For the first time, the Nez Perce tribe released 200,000 juvenile spring Chinook from a hatchery into the Sweetwater creek.

"It's a ceremonial happy moment when we stock those streams," said Scott Kellar, Tribal Hatchery Manager with the Nez Perce tribe.

He goes on to say that while it was an exciting day, he’s sad they have reached a point where stocking fish is required.

Since the Lewiston Dam was built on the Clearwater river in 1927, tribe members say the dam did not have adequate fish passages, forcing fish to be pushed upstream of the dam, most of them did not survive.

"It was manmade obstructions that had wiped out the naturally returning fish,” Kellar said.

The dam was removed in the 1970s, shortly after fish were reintroduced through the hatchery programs. However, wild spring Chinook have not returned to the creek due to lack of water and poor habitat.

"It's kind of a sad state that we are relying heavily on hatchery fish for spring Chinook but our intent is to provide hatchery fish for tribal harvest, but we are hoping that some of these fish will skate past those harvest opportunities and start spawning naturally in the stream,” Kellar said.

For the past several years the Nez Perce tribe worked to reconnect the creek to its original floodplain and installed stream structures that created cooler water flows, allowing the creek to welcome hatchery fish.

"They are not only a keystone species for the tribes of the northwest, but we rely heavily on them for our culture and our ceremonies. It's our basic food, but also they are involved in the chain of life, the circle of life,” he said. “They provide nutrients and when they die in-stream, they feed the bugs, the eagles, and the birds, and once you interrupt that you're impacting the whole lifecycle of other animals."

While many Nez Perce tribe members are overjoyed that spring Chinook are back in the waters again, they mourn the loss of wild, natural chinook and are not optimistic that they will ever return.

"It's the dams that would provide the most impact the quickest," he said. "That would be the biggest impact.”

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