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Endangered Salmon Returned Home for First Time Since 1940s

When scientists proposed moving endangered winter-run Chinook salmon into historical habitat upstream of Shasta Dam this summer, they expected some people would doubt the seemingly new idea could work. But it wasn’t a new idea at all, and it had been proven long ago.

“When talking about returning salmon to historical habitats above high-head dams, it’s not uncommon to hear claims that it’s too difficult,” said Stacie Fejtek Smith, fisheries biologist for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. “And that is fundamentally untrue. The traditional knowledge shows us that fish can be moved and that people have been doing it since time immemorial.”

As an urgent response to a third straight year of drought, NOAA Fisheries and its partners — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe of Northern California — proposed moving winter-run Chinook to the McCloud River, where the fish historically spawned until Shasta Dam cut them off from their habitat in the 1940s. The Winnemem Wintu, who are also known as the Middle Water People of the McCloud River, have a centuries-long history of transporting salmon past barriers.

“Before dams like this existed, the Winnemem Wintu people would bring these fish with them in baskets above barriers or waterfalls, so they would have that food source,” Smith said. “They have been doing fish introductions for many centuries and are the caregivers to these fish.”

The caregivers would even light fires alongside the river, to mimic stars in an effort to guide fish upstream. Over the centuries, they passed down valuable knowledge about fish introductions, the overall landscape, the mudflows in the McCloud River and the ways salmon benefit the entire ecosystem.

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