Whale conservation group Whale Scout and students from the Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish Tribes attending the Northwest Indian College last Saturday planted 800 beach plants on the east side of the mouth of the Elwha River.
The event was hosted by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe on the newly created beach formed when decades of sediment were released after the 2014 removal of two Elwha River dams. The five species of newly planted beach plants will help stabilize the sediment protecting the nearby estuary which is home to salmon during their early life stages. These salmon include Chinook, a vital food resource for endangered Southern Resident killer whales of Washington State.
“This event provided an important cultural event for students in addition to a field laboratory for understanding life sciences,” said Yvonne Shevalier, Faculty of Native Environmental Science at the Northwest Indian College. Many students who brought extended families wanted the next generation to have the opportunity to return to the beach and witness the difference their actions made on tribal land. Catherine Youngman, a student who grew up on Lower Elwha Reservation and who will graduate this spring with a BS in Native Environmental Science, remembers the degraded beach prior to dam removal.
In addition to planting native beach plants, volunteers and students removed invasive plants such as ivy. “Weeding is important because the new beach area is vulnerable to invasive species, and we would like to give native plants a
chance to get established first.,” said Laurel Moulton, Assistant manager of the Matt Albright Native Plant Propagation Facility at the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. “Restoration of the Elwha River has implications of many species of wildlife including orcas.”
According to biologist Mike McHenry with the tribe, it is still early to understand the full scope of the benefits of dam removal for orcas and salmon, but there are good signs. Adult salmon are recolonizing the upper river, smolt production numbers are up, and new life histories are emerging.
The event was one of eight Whale Scout “Helpin’ Out” events hosted by Whale Scout each year. These events are focused on restoring the habitat of Chinook salmon, the primary prey of endangered Southern Resident killer whales which number just 76, the lowest in 30 years.
As state officials are considering possible management actions to accelerate the recovery of listed Chinook salmon and killer whales, the Elwha River restoration project serves as a positive example of what can be done. “Helping restore the Elwha River estuary is such an inspiring experience. It’s a true example of how people have come together to make the right decision for salmon, orcas, and people,” said Laurie Gogic, a Whale Scout volunteer who helped coordinate the event.