The Nez Perce Department of Fisheries building at 500 N. Main St. in Joseph is about as nondescript as you can find. It’s not particularly large, but impact of the work done there in Wallowa County and its fish population is immense.
The scores of local and tourist fishermen who line the banks of the county’s streams and rivers would likely not be there without the agency’s work.
When the Nez Perce left their Wallowa Valley homeland in 1877, they’d lost nearly everything –– their homeland, much of their livestock and eventually, much of their freedom. However, under the 1855 and 1863 treaties that hastened the Tribe’s demise, they still retained hunting, fishing and grazing rights throughout much of their former lands.
The Tribe eventually established its Department of Fisheries Resource Management that helps ensure that the salmon, which were and are a staple of the Nez Perce diet as well as a tremendous part of the Tribe’s culture and heritage, are protected into the future, as well as enhancing opportunities for sportsmen.
The agency’s administrative offices are in Lapwai, Idaho, and it maintains a number of field offices in addition to Joseph: Sweetwater, Orofino, Red River, Grangeville and McCall. Most of the work is done outside the boundaries of the 1863 treaty although the vast majority of work done at the Joseph station is completed within Wallowa County.
The fisheries department is divided into various divisions. The Research Division, which covers a number of aspects of fish research and assessment; the Production Division, which includes aquaculturists who actually trap, spawn, rear and release the fish; and the Watershed Division, which works on habitat restoration. The Tribe’s fisheries program covers more than 13 million acres of watershed in an area that includes portions of Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
Jim Harbeck works in Research and is a 20-year employee with the agency. He holds a Master’s Degree in Fisheries Science from Michigan State University. He started as a project leader on the Lostine River in the ‘90s and is now the Joseph Field Office supervisor.
He began work on the river at a time of perilous salmon population levels. He feared that Chinook salmon might disappear as Coho salmon did decades earlier.
Harbeck said that Chinook salmon and steelhead are listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act for a variety of reasons, and the agency works to protect them. Dams, low warm water in river and streams, rising ocean temperatures that create a lack of food, over-harvest and other factors all contribute to the problem.
“It’s additive,” Harbeck said. “I don’t want to point fingers, but we do a lot of things that aren’t beneficial to these fish.”
Although the area’s rivers provide ideal spawning grounds for salmon, it wasn’t always like that. In fact, without the cooperation and collaboration of the Tribe, ODFW and local landowners, few salmon would inhabit the Lostine River now.
For example, during part of Harbeck’s tenure, the Lostine ran dry in the summers. In the summer of 1999, the agency managed to intercept only 13 returning salmon at its monitoring weir.
“I know there were a few more, but that’s all we were able to catch,” he said. “Despite all my experience and education, there’s just one thing I know for sure - fish need water.”
Using financial incentives through the Freshwater Trust, the Tribe worked with Lostine River irrigators to retain enough water for salmon returns.
The Freshwater Trust is a conservation nonprofit based in Portland. Its mission is to preserve and restore freshwater ecosystems.
“Now there’s hundreds, and some years there’s thousands returning,” Harbeck said. “But it doesn’t matter if there’s millions of fish coming back. If there’s no habitat for them when they return, it doesn’t matter.”
Wallowa County’s fish populations are jointly managed with the ODFW, it may surprise people how closely the Tribe works with the State.
“It’s due to the treaties,” Harbeck said. “Through the course of time, they’ve been interpreted to mean that the Nez Perce Tribe has co-management authority of these fishery resources in this part of the state.”
Harbeck said that although the Tribe partners with a number of entities to improve salmon populations, the partnership with local property owners is paramount. In fact, about 75 percent of their work is done on private property.
“A lot of our work is done on private property,” he said. “If we didn’t have the cooperation of these Wallowa County landowners, we’d be dead in our tracks.”
The agency is funded through a number of different avenues, such as the Bonneville Power Administration, which supplies and sells a portion of power throughout the Pacific Northwest. In the ‘70s, the federal government decided that a portion of those fees be paid toward fish and wildlife losses because of the dams it operates.
The agency submits proposals to the Power Administration for funding. Harbeck said it is not limited to fish and wildlife agencies and that anyone can submit a proposal for funding. An Independent Scientific Review Panel reviews the proposals and then recommends what projects are funded.
It’s not just the protection of the fish that benefit the county. The Tribe employs 20 full-time workers and offers outstanding insurance benefits, which Harbeck said is indicative of the Tribe’s commitment to its employees and their families. The agency also hires 6-8 part-time employees who generally work in the spring season.
Harbeck said that even citizens who don’t have an interest in fish benefit from the presence of the Tribe. Much of the agency’s budget, which is considerable, is spent inside the county with local vendors.
“The fact that we do our projects here and spend our money here is a good thing for the local economy,” he said. “We’ve got good people here who make a good contribution to Wallowa County and contribute to the local culture. Because the Tribe maintains a field office here, there’s good things happening in Wallowa County.”