ODOT partners with Klamath Tribes to turn a highway project into a wetland restoration.
An amazing transformation is taking place on a 40-acre parcel of fallow land on the shores of Klamath Lake. This land, the ancestral home of the Klamath and Modoc people, is coming back to life thanks to a partnership the Oregon Department of Transportation has developed with the Klamath Tribes.
In 2019, ODOT’s Highway Region 4 (central Oregon) team began to acquire an area on the southeast shore of Klamath Lake. This arid parcel of land would serve as an ideal place for crews to restore, helping offset construction impacts affecting wetlands on the other side of the lake.
“This is part of a larger wetland restoration that will be an offset for not only Oregon 140 but future projects, too,” said Jamie Speer, project manager with Western Federal Lands, ODOT’s contractor for the construction portion of the restoration project.
Restoring wetlands and “adding it to the bank” allows the state to make much-needed improvements to roadways. ODOT then takes out and uses credits when projects impact or disturb wetland areas.
Working together for good
The Klamath Tribes quickly realized this wetlands project could possibly serve as prime habitat for two endangered species of suckerfish reared in hatcheries and needing a home: the shortnose sucker and the Lost River sucker. Working together, everyone agreed that this re-made wetland full of marshes, ponds, and lake channels would be the perfect new sanctuary for these fish – ones that have been nearly eradicated from Klamath Lake.
According to Dr. Alex Gonyaw, Senior Fisheries biologist for the Klamath Tribes, these fish are extremely important to tribal members.
For thousands of years, the Klamath Tribes considered both species of sucker a key food source, Gonyaw said.
When winters were tough and seemed to never end, the Tribes could count on seeing the plentiful return of the fish up the rivers each spring. They knew then that the struggle of winter was ending.
As time progressed and settlers began moving into the area, farmers turned wetlands into cattle fields. Habitat loss and poor water quality made life challenging for young fish, and the return of this valuable food source to the rivers dwindled. By 1988, both species of suckers were listed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as endangered species.
The Klamath Tribes have been raising these endangered sucker fish in their hatchery on the Sprague River. When the water levels rise next spring, staff will stock the new ponds with around 500 suckers as a test to see how they survive. The U.S. Geological Survey is providing tracking beacons for the fish, so their movements in and out of the wetlands can be monitored.
A hopeful future
ODOT Environmental Program Coordinator Allison Cowie said the project will help young fish survival rates and make it easier for them to make their way into the deeper parts of the lake.
“I feel very encouraged to work with the Klamath Tribes and try something new that hasn’t been done yet to help these fish,” she said. “I feel really good about this project.”
Today, the Klamath Tribes hold an annual ceremony called “Return of the C’waam,” (the Klamath language word for the Lost River sucker), where they gather to pray for the plentiful return of this sacred fish. With a little bit of help, the future will bring a larger return of these important fish.