To reach their home waters in Washington, Upper Columbia River steelhead swim more than 500 miles, overcome nine Columbia River dams and finally enter the tributary streams of the state’s arid interior. After Chief Joseph Dam, they reach the Okanogan river valley, which stretches out like a broad welcome mat of winding rivers, sagebrush-covered slopes and lofty peaks extending clear into Canada.
Here, steelhead face a new challenge: water. In fertile Okanogan County, farms draw heavily from tributary streams like Antoine Creek, leaving flows too low and warm for steelhead to spawn. Today, Upper Columbia River steelhead, including a distinct population unit on the Okanogan River, are federally threatened.
No one knows the challenges these fish face better than the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, which have inhabited Okanogan Country for millennia. For a decade, the tribes have set their sights on buying a large ranch along Antoine Creek, a tributary of the Okanogan River. With cold water and critical steelhead habitat, Antoine Creek presents a tremendous opportunity to restore a lifeline for Upper Columbia steelhead.
To usher this vision forward, Western Rivers Conservancy purchased the 2,524-acre Antoine Valley Ranch in late 2020 with a grant from the Washington Streamflow Restoration Program and support from The David and Lucile Packard Foundation. We transferred half of the ranch to the Colville Tribes, and we are now actively working to raise funds to transfer the second half. Once this happens, the tribes can increase flows in Antoine Creek by up to 95 percent during critical times of the year and revive spawning habitat that has been choked off by water withdrawals for decades.
The beauty of this project lies in the rare opportunity to return such significant stream-flows to Antoine Creek. The trick to doing it hinges, strangely enough, on the presence of a dam. The ranch, which spans approximately 2.5 miles of the stream, includes an earthen dam that lies on a separate segment of the property roughly eight miles upstream, above natural barriers for steelhead. The dam, which does not impede steelhead migration, holds water that in the past was diverted at the ranch to grow crops, severely limiting downstream spawning habitat for fish. Once the Colville Tribes regain the land and have control of the dam, they will increase flows into Antoine Creek during the critical spawning season, a game-changer for this threatened run of steelhead.
The Colville Tribes also plan to restore the riparian land and streambeds along the portion of the creek that flows through the ranch, improving steelhead spawning and rearing areas. Elsewhere on the property, the goal is to replant the ranch’s farm fields with native vegetation and restore extensive sagebrush grasslands, while keeping some of the non-riparian lands in managed grazing. This new management regime will benefit threatened Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, migratory birds, mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, as well as animals that rely on the land as a migratory corridor between the Cascade Range to the west and the Kettle Crest to the east.
WRC’s efforts at Antoine Creek have received pivotal support from Trout Unlimited. Our purchase of Antoine Valley Ranch was made possible by the Washington Department of Ecology’s Streamflow Restoration Grant Program.