Nez Perce Helping to Purchase Easement
The Nez Perce Tribe is helping to purchase a conservation easement on a Wallowa County ranch in northeast Oregon to provide habitat for spawning salmon.
The proposed 257-acre easement on the Woody Wolfe Ranch, a combination of preserved riverfront and working farmland, is adjacent to another similar easement completed in 2011 with the help of the Wallowa Land Trust and purchased with private foundation money.
The Trust’s Conservation Director Julia Lakes said when the Trust was framing the first easement on the Wolfe Ranch, the Tribe was asked to support their effort. With the presence of the Lostine Weir, she said the Tribe was a potentially good funder.
“That site has cultural value for the Tribe,” Lakes said.
While they are waiting on a final appraisal, Lakes said the Tribe has promised to contribute $28,000 toward the purchase price; part of a match for money made available through the USDA farm bill administered by the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Lakes said, “We are still working with NRCS and are hoping to close early next year.”
She said the easement property along river provides opportunity for habitat restoration to improve what is already very important spawning ground as well as the historic aspect of the land.
The riverbank along the Wallowa/Lostine confluence was once a large Nez Perce village, said Jim Harbeck, Nez Perce Fisheries Joseph Office manager said. He said that early settlers called it “Indian Town”.
“It’s where negotiations happened,” said Harbeck. “When the early settlers wanted to speak or meet with Nez Perce Tribal leaders that’s where they went.”
Old Chief Joseph was buried on a hillside above the river. Silas Whitman, former director of Nez Perce Fisheries and past tribal chairman, said young Chief Joseph was born in Joseph Canyon, but raised in the fishing village on the Lostine River.
“I assume the tribe used the area for eons of time,” Whitman said.
Whitman said Nez Perce Tribe Wallowa Band members camped at the village site starting in May or June to catch fish for fresh consumption, curing and drying. Today tribal members exercise their treaty rights and fish in place of the historic village for chinook salmon and steelhead.
The tribe’s connection to Wallowa County and its rivers is not only historic, but also legally defined Harbeck said.
“The Nez Perce Tribe is a legal co-manager of these fisheries resources, in Wallowa County established through courts and based upon treaties,” Harbeck said.
As far as the tribe is concerned, said Shane Vatland, the Lostine weir project leader, the importance of the conservation easement to the Tribe is the floodplain and a mile of critical chinook spawning habitat that spans up the Lostine River about a mile from the weir.
“Since we’ve been monitoring we’ve found anywhere from five to 30 percent of the chinook spawning in that reach,” Vatland said.
These fish come in what Vatland called the later pulse of returning chinook; the earlier arriving fish tend to spawn at higher elevation.
In collaboration with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Vatland said the tribe conducts spawning ground surveys weekly from mid-August to mid-September starting at the confluence and upriver about 22 miles.
Harbeck said the easement is also important to the tribe’s long-term goal of bringing back coho, another iconic species that used to be here that the tribe wants to reintroduce.
“I can foresee coho using the easement for reproduction,” Harbeck said.
The Tribe’s research in northeast Oregon is focused on the Lostine and the Imnaha rivers where research is conducted on both adult and juvenile anadromous fish.
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