Can We Keep Salmon in the Nooksack?

Mt. Baker

Mt. Baker in the North Cascades of Washington is home to a number of glaciers that feed into the Nooksack River. (Photo by Oliver Grah, Nooksack Indian Tribe.)

Deming, Washington is a town nestled among ferns and evergreens at the base of Mt. Baker in the North Cascades. Its tiny size belies its cultural significance as the ancestral home and current government headquarters of the Nooksack Indian Tribe. For thousands of years the Nooksack have lived here, relying on resources of the Nooksack River watershed like salmon, bracken fern, wild carrots, berries, and clams. The upper reaches of the river are cold waters, fed by mountain glaciers. But glaciers in the North Cascades are disappearing. They’re smaller than they have been in nearly 4,000 years and continue to shrink steadily. Since the late 1800’s, river temperatures have also increased, challenging the ability of salmon to survive in the river.

As the climate warms, decreases in snow accumulation and glacier melt will lead to lower flows throughout the watershed from late spring through early fall. Lowered flows and increasing air temperatures will also lead to higher stream temperatures. Higher peak flows will likely occur during the winter, scouring important salmon habitat. These climate change impacts will continue to threaten the Nooksack Tribe’s natural and cultural resources. For the last 25 years, the Tribe has been heavily involved in understanding current, legacy, and potential impacts caused by continued climate change, seeking ways to maintain resiliency in the watershed.

Working with partners, including federal, state, and local entities, and combining funds from the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NPLCC) and several other grant programs, the Nooksack Indian Tribe is leading a project that examines the effects of climate change on glaciers in the Nooksack River watershed to evaluate impacts on salmonids the Tribe depends on.

Oliver Grah, Nooksack Water Resources Program Manager, knows the potential severity of these impacts. “Members of the Nooksack Indian Tribe rely on salmon for subsistence, cultural, and commercial uses. The Tribe’s reliance on Pacific salmon goes back time immemorial,” he explains. The Nooksack River watershed is home to Chinook, Coho, cutthroat, steelhead, and bull trout, three of which are listed as threatened under the federal endangered species act. Today, these populations are critically low. “Only about ten percent of the total salmon returns that occurred in the late 1800’s occur today,” adds Grah. And these returns continue to decline. 

Dramatic increases in Pacific Ocean temperatures, poor habitat conditions and fewer food sources take a toll on migrating salmon. For example, according to current predictions, nearly every Puget Sound coho salmon stock is expected to return in numbers lower than the “escapement threshold,” meaning returning fish will not be numerous enough to support tribal, commercial or recreational fisheries. Fraser River sockeye, which usually migrate through Puget Sound, will likely migrate north and bypass Nooksack land in Northern Puget Sound. 

For the Nooksack Tribe, this is not a good sign, explains Grah, stating “this decline in salmon populations impacts Tribal members benefiting from treaty rights.”

These discouraging scenarios attracted the attention of a notable number of local and national entities interested in partnering with the Nooksack Tribe. Though the Tribe has been participating in salmon recovery for over 25 years, newer climactic predictions have spurred them to incorporate climate change adaptation into their planning of future habitat restoration.

The project first looked at behavior of glaciers high in the watershed. Mt. Baker and surrounding peaks are covered by approximately 148 glaciers and glacierets (miniature alpine glaciers). Late summer stream flows and cooler stream temperatures, critical to salmon, are provided by snowmelt from these glaciers. 

In 2012, the Tribe began monitoring the Sholes, Heliotrope, and Hadley glaciers on Mt. Baker.  They measured snow depth, melt rate of accumulated snow and glacial ice, stream flow, sediment loads, and stream temperature. These measurements characterized a baseline of current conditions against which to measure climate change impacts. A weather station was also installed and operated at the Sholes Glacier to collect data on air temperature, precipitation, humidity, and solar radiation. 

“We will be into our fifth year of glacier flow, temperature, and sediment field studies directed at evaluating effects of climate change,” shares Grah. Early results of glacier monitoring showed higher turbidity (suspended sediments) for glacial melt than snow melt and higher turbidity recorded with high air temperature events, confirming the Tribe’s need for action.

The condition of the glaciers directly affects salmon residing in glacier-fed rivers. With better understanding of glacier behavior, the Tribe is able to evaluate effects of recent and future climate-driven changes on salmonids. 

With support from the NPLCC, the Tribe has developed a climate change impact vulnerability assessment and adaptation plan for salmon in the South Fork Nooksack River watershed. “NPLCC’s funding was fundamental to the success of that project,” Grah describes. It allowed the Tribe to work closely with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington Department of Ecology, Western Washington University, Nichols College, and University of Washington and other key partners, including the Lummi Nation and Stillaguamish Tribe. “All of these agencies, individuals, and other groups substantially contributed to our project,” Grah notes.

Working with these partners, the Tribe is developing targeted restoration actions to address climate change. These include reconnecting fragmented floodplains, restoring historic stream flow regimes, managing erosion and sediment delivery, improving riparian functions, and rehabilitating degraded streams. 

“Our overall project has several components in various stages of completion,” explains Grah. “We will continue to pursue completion of the overall project through adaptive management, and supplement our overall work plan as funding and new information supports additional work.”

For now, the future for salmon in the Nooksack is uncertain. Challenges remain, but by looking ahead, uniting collaborators, and showing leadership, the Nooksack Tribe is increasing the odds that culturally-significant natural resources will be there to support future generations.

In the future, the Tribe plans to take a similar approach to address non-freshwater ecosystems like forests and marine systems, and is already in the early stages of collaboration with the Stillaguamish Tribe and the University of Washington to move in these new directions.

Exploring Mt. Baker. (Photo by Oliver Grah, Nooksack Indian Tribe.)

A research team from the Nooksack Indian Tribe explores the glaciers lining Mt. Baker. (Photo by Oliver Grah, Nooksack Indian Tribe.)

Oliver Grah measures stream velocity as part of the Nooksack Tribe’s glacier monitoring efforts. (Photo courtesy of Oliver Grah, Nooksack Indian Tribe.)