People
12.21.2023

Welcoming Relatives Home

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville in Washington State are restoring the lands and species of their traditional ecological community.

From our vantage point in a motorboat on the reservoir known as Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake in eastern Washington, we scan the rocky canyon walls of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville’s Hellgate game reserve for bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis). Before it was a reservoir, manufactured by the United States government’s Grand Coulee Dam, this was once a mighty, salmon-rich stretch of the Columbia River that formed the basis of an entire ecosystem—and that supported the 12 tribes of the Colville Confederated Tribes since time immemorial.

The boat belongs to Rose Piccinini, the Tribes’ Sanpoil district wildlife biologist. She is part of a team that manages the herd of bighorn sheep that the Tribes’ wildlife department first reintroduced in 2009. She also leads the Tribes’ efforts to restore lynx populations back into the ecosystem here.

The animals who shared this landscape were once fully integrated into every aspect of tribal members’ lives. They harvested bighorn sheep and other game for food, tools, and clothing. Intricate myths, legends, and teachings about the animals were passed down by elders to descendants and bound them to who they were—and who, as a result, their descendants came to be.

But then American settlers brought domesticated sheep and goats, and with them, diseases that bighorns weren’t able to recover from. The succession of disease exposures, against which bighorns had little defense, significantly reduced their numbers and made them more vulnerable to impacts they might have otherwise withstood. Save for a few small pockets in secluded locations, the bighorns died off, and the herds disappeared from the landscape and the lives of the Tribes.

As we crane our necks and squint our eyes upward in the hot midday July sun, shadows reveal more than a dozen bighorn sheep on the north side of the canyon, less than 30 meters (100 feet) above the reservoir. Ewes and lambs weave paths through stalks of mullein (Verbascum thapsus), leaving their crescent-shaped tracks in the sand, all the while feeding on shrubs that dot the hillside and scree. Their sharp horns curl back from their heads as their amber eyes attend to their surroundings. Two of the animals walk onto a sandy section of the slope, licking at minerals. They kick up dust and cascades of sand, which form rivulets and accumulate into plumes, slowly fanning down the sandy slope to the shoreline below.

For the 12 tribes of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville, whose reservation is located in north-central Washington State, their ecosystem isn’t complete without the animals and plants who have long inhabited the land alongside them. Maintaining these relationships of reciprocity in modern times involves the protection and reintroduction of native species, as well as the restoration of their habitats, an ambitious effort that the Tribes’ wildlife department has been leading since its inception in the 1970s.

As the Tribes work together to restore populations of more native species like bighorn sheep and salmon to their lands and waters, they bring collective healing with them. This healing is felt by the people who have long endured cultural trauma from the forces of European and American colonization. It further strengthens their enduring resilience.

Bighorns were among the Tribes’ first relatives to be extirpated from the region, but the world-shattering impacts of colonization only intensified henceforth.

Salmon have always been at the center of the Tribes’ culture and, until the mid-20th century, their diet and economy. The fish fed the people and the land with, among other things, the nutrients stored in their bodies. The fish consumed sea life and later carried this sustenance upstream in their migratory journey inland. Tribal representatives cite reports of 20,000 salmon per day, weighing on average 15 kilograms (35 pounds) each, swimming up the Columbia. With their death and decomposition, the nutrients brought by the salmon in their flesh and bones nourished the forests, prairies, and riparian areas, as well as the coyotes, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, lynx, pronghorn, buffalo, wolves, eagles, and innumerable other beings interconnected within these systems.

But in 1942, the U.S. government built the Grand Coulee Dam and “ended a way of life,” according to a documentary produced by the Tribes. The dam blocked 2,250 kilometers (1,400 miles) of salmon spawning habitat and flooded 22,600 hectares (56,000 acres) of land, as well as the ecosystems that supported whole communities of animals and people. This included critical winter habitat for deer and elk, and areas the Tribes relied on for native food and medicinal plants, all of which were drowned by the government’s dam construction.

No fish passage was built then, nor since.

“Overnight, it was shut off,” says Richard Whitney, a member of the Sinixt band of the Colville Confederated Tribes and the Tribes’ wildlife department manager, who assumed leadership of the department in 2014. All at once, salmon, who were the Tribes’ staple food and the foundation of their culture and economy, were gone.

To survive, the Tribes turned to other species native to the ecosystem, and started a decades-long effort to restore wildlife populations in the area. By 1975, the Tribes had established a wildlife management department with funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in accordance with the Bureau’s trust responsibilities to the Indigenous peoples with whom it had signed treaties. Elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni), Whitney says, have, “stepped up to offer themselves so [the Tribes] could persist.”

Today, thanks to the Tribes’ reintroduction efforts, their elk herds are strong, growing from 481 total elk counted in 2002, to more than double that in 2022. Whitney says elk numbers on the reservation are at a 20-year high, which gives Tribal members additional opportunities for harvest.

With elk reintroduction efforts underway, the Tribes next turned their attention to sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) in the late 1990s, then bighorn sheep in 2005 and pronghorns (Antilocapra americana) in 2014, followed by lynx (Lynx canadensis), salmon, and buffalo (Bison bison).

Although they have not reintroduced wolves (Canis lupus), the Tribes have allowed the apex predators to recolonize their lands since discovering evidence in 2008 that wolves had started returning on their own. Wolf packs are now managed here at a stable level.

The Colville Confederated Tribes’ plan to re-establish bighorn sheep began with six translocations that ultimately brought 136 bighorns back to the reservation. Although the herds have continued to suffer from diseases carried by domesticated goats and sheep—exposure that is worsened by drought as it concentrates animals around smaller watering areas—Whitney says the population has since grown to more than 250.

As Whitney assumed leadership of the wildlife division and took over the restoration of bighorn sheep, it was suggested to him that the Tribes sell licenses for trophy bighorn hunts to non-tribal hunters to help pay for more staff. Some state fish and wildlife departments sell hunting licenses via auction or raffle for a number of species considered to be trophies to the highest bidder to generate revenue. For example, in Washington this year, one bighorn sheep hunting license generated $181,460, while a similar license was auctioned for $370,00 in Oregon.

Whitney was adamantly opposed to the idea, and his reasoning provides insight into the approach he takes to wildlife management: “That animal is worth more to me than a biologist position. That animal has value and it’s not in dollars,” he says. With so much wildlife management reliant on hunters paying license fees, which in turn fund conservation and management, Whitney says the priorities are off. “If it just comes down to money, then you guys are in the wrong business. You’ll never get it right.”

In addition to providing sustenance for tribal members, the restoration of native species serves to restore a community of species of which people are an integral part. “There’s a harmony there, and anything that’s missing breaks that balance,” Whitney says. “There’s still a harmony, but it’s missing a note here and there.” With each member of the ecological community Whitney’s wildlife department restores, the whole community sings fuller-voiced.

Richard Whitney was raised on the reservation, and was always in the woods, cutting firewood, hunting, fishing, or just being “out there, on the rez,” especially with his father and uncle. “It’s always been an important part of my life. I feel like I belong in nature,” he says. This sense of belonging, rooted in a culture with ancient ancestral connections to the land they reside on, dovetailed with the scientific management of natural resources when Whitney began a series of internships with the Tribes’ forestry, fisheries, and wildlife departments at the age of 14. He went on to earn his Master’s degree from Washington State University in natural resource sciences, studying sharp-tailed grouse. Nearly a decade ago, Whitney took his current position as the Tribes’ wildlife program manager.

Soon after taking the position in 2014, Whitney began leading pronghorn restoration efforts for the Tribes. Using knowledge gained from habitat evaluation surveys he’d worked on previously, as well as feasibility reports from the 1990s and early 2000s, he determined that the region offered plenty of suitable pronghorn habitat. In addition, he and his team looked at pronghorn reintroduction attempts by a number of other agencies to determine what had worked and what hadn’t. The Yakama Nation, for example, had successfully restored pronghorn in the past, while the state of Washington had tried, but failed.

In January 2016, after determining there was adequate habitat and food on the reservation, Whitney and his team reintroduced 52 pronghorn. Some of those animals died, likely due to stress and overexertion during transport. In the project’s second year, the team introduced 98 pronghorn—earlier in the year (in October rather than in mid-winter) and in smaller groups, shortly after they had been captured. Survival of reintroduced animals greatly improved in year two, providing valuable information on reintroductions for the future

Now, on a sunny July day, Sam Rushing drives us in his pickup truck through the hills outside of Bridgeport on the reservation to see the results. He is the Tribes’ Omak-Nespelem district wildlife biologist and is looking for some of the pronghorn the Tribes reintroduced from Nevada seven years earlier. We scan the open, grassy hillsides in the valley, near a wildfire burn scar, until we spot a herd in the flats near a creek bottom, between two tall ponderosa pines. Spooked by our presence, the group of nearly two-dozen animals—does, fawns, and one large buck—trot uphill together. Rushing says the Tribes’ herd now numbers 225.

For Whitney and his relatives, animals are friends and often referred to as such. “We don’t rule the kingdom, but are part of it by relating with friends,” he says. “We’re reuniting with old friends. We’re restoring a community, restoring the system.”

Following previous ceremonial releases, in late July 2023, tribal members gather at the San Poil River’s edge. As they wait, the sun illuminates the sky—blue, save a few passing clouds—and shines down through the ponderosa pines and into the river, the rays of light twirling through currents and dappling the round stones below.

Members of the Tribe form a line between a fish-hauling truck and the river. They pass Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)—one after the other, from one to another—in specially designed rubber bags toward the river, returning the generous offering of life to the salmon, and in turn, the animals and land. At the end of the line, in one continuous motion, Patrick Tonasket, Keller District representative for the tribal council, gently pulls a large Chinook by the tail from a bag and orients the fish in the current’s flow. He holds his right hand on the salmon’s broad back until the fish feels the current’s rush, then flicks her tail and jets upstream.

“We’re dedicated to bringing those salmon back,” Tonasket says quietly.

By day’s end, the Tribes will release 70 summer Chinook salmon. Prior to the operation, biologists working for the Tribes had ensured that the fish were free of disease and had inserted tiny monitoring tags before trucking them upriver for the ceremonial release. These releases give tribal members the opportunity to hold ceremony with and for the salmon. With each salmon released, healing and hope surges through those gathered by the river. Later on, the proof that salmon can spawn in this river will most likely reinforce habitat and model assessments, aiding in future reintroduction efforts by proving they can succeed.

“The salmon used to run strong here,” says Darnell Sam, a descendant of the Sanpoil Band of the Colville Confederated Tribes. Sam is the Wenatchi Salmon Chief, and leads a ceremony for these fish, whom, he says, in the beginning, offered themselves to the people so they could survive. Sam is also the great nephew of Chief Jim James of the Sanpoil, who presided over the Ceremony of Tears, when his relatives’ millennia-old salmon fishery at Kettle Falls was inundated following the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. Now, Sam stands in the river, his shirt adorned with images of mountain lions and white and blue ribbons that pulse in breeze, and he releases a salmon to the river, as the sun shines down.

Sam says the salmon have always run parallel to his people, specifically regarding their resilience: “They’ve endured a lot. Our people have endured a lot. … They’ve been colonized; they’ve been oppressed. So has the salmon, but yet, they still endure, and they still survive, and they’re still here.” Recalling the Ceremony of Tears for Kettle Falls, where his ancestors mourned the loss of the salmon from Grand Coulee Dam, he says, “This is an opportunity for us to wipe them tears.”

The Kettle Mountain Range runs north-south along the eastern flank of the Colville reservation and north into the Tribes’ ancestral territory in Colville National Forest. Lynx are known to live in the Kettle Mountains, but in very low numbers, and likely only as transients.

The species is listed as endangered in the state of Washington and threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. But lynx once existed in abundance in Washington state—including on the Tribes’ ancestral territories—before colonization, habitat destruction, trapping, and climate change-worsened wildfires all took their toll. These compounding factors have had a lasting impact on the region’s lynx population.

While the cats are protected in the U.S., they are still trapped without limit in British Columbia. Many of these lynx might otherwise migrate south across the border. But without that natural influx, human-aided immigration may be necessary for the survival of lynx, at least in Washington state. In 2013, an interagency task force was formed and affirmed the importance of the Kettle Range in conserving lynx in the U.S. because of its viable connection to existing habitats and populations north of the border.

Climate change and the growing threat of catastrophic wildfires are key reasons for the lynx’s precarious conservation status. While lower intensity fires historically created mosaics of lynx habitat, massive wildfires, which began in earnest throughout the region in 2002, have burned entire swaths of the Okanogan Mountain Range, including some of the state’s few core lynx habitats. By 2019, fires like these had substantially impacted 50 percent of the suitable lynx range in the Okanogan Mountains.

In this era of climate change, widespread drought, and wildfires of increasing frequency and intensity, the already-small lynx population in Washington could soon be left without adequate habitat. Lynx disappearing from the state has become a real possibility.

“I don’t work in a vacuum, only looking at lynx and lynx habitat, but recognizing that all of the animals are important, and part of the picture and part of that balance that we’re trying to restore.”

— Rose Piccinini, Sanpoil District, Confederated Tribes of the Colville

Sanpoil District wildlife biologist Rose Piccinini, who is not a tribal member, grew up close to the land, due north of the reservation in an area known as the “North Half,” where the Tribes maintain traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering rights. “I always am proud to say that I work for the Tribe, and I think part of it is that connection to the land and the connection to the animals, and the holistic way the Tribe looks at managing,” she says. “I don’t work in a vacuum, only looking at lynx and lynx habitat, but recognizing that all of the animals are important, and part of the picture and part of that balance that we’re trying to restore.”

Assessments conducted by Washington State University and the non-profit Conservation Northwest between 2013 and 2019 determined the Kettle Mountains still contained a small number of likely transient lynx and adequate habitat and food for lynx to be re-established there, despite the heavy impacts that megafires have had in the Okanogan Mountains.

With this evidence in hand, Whitney, as the Tribes’ wildlife department director, gave his department the go-ahead to jump on board. The 5-year plan was to translocate 10 lynx per year from British Columbia to the Colville Reservation. They hoped the lynx would make their homes there and begin to reproduce. In addition to restoring the community, a major goal was to provide an additional population in western North America as well as increase the chances of connectivity with lynx in B.C. and an existing population in the Okanogan highlands.

The first season, which ran from November 2021 to February 2022, saw three of the nine introduced lynx return to Canada. One of those later made her way back down to the Kettle Mountains, demonstrating that north-south connectivity was not only possible but happening.

During the second season, in October 2022, the team trapped and released the animals earlier in the fall instead of through winter as they had in the first year. “They had an opportunity to get the lay of the land before the winter,” Piccinini says. The team trapped and released 10 lynx the second year, two of which had been captured the first year and had returned to B.C. Earlier this year, the team was planning to set up a geofence and use newer, better GPS-collars to determine more precisely where and how lynx are moving between habitats, which may inform future wildlife corridor projects.

Now, at the beginning of the project’s third year, all metrics point to success. Of the surviving 17 lynx trapped and released in both years, 10 appear to have established themselves in the Kettle Range, while four have returned to B.C. Three of the relocated lynx have since died. This sobering news, however, is at least partially offset by the likelihood of a new litter of kittens born on lands north of the reservation boundary, which if confirmed, will help bolster the local population. Piccinini is anxiously awaiting confirmation from trail cameras she and tribal members have set up in the area. Seven additional lynx were recently captured and, of those, five remain on the reservation.

The Return of Lynx to the Colville Confederated Tribes’ lands represents an important geographical reciprocity. Some of Whitney’s human relatives, too, are re-establishing themselves in B.C., where they once lived with the lynx, the salmon, the elk, and myriad other relatives. “We’re intermingling,” he says. “They’ve taken care of the habitat up there for us and ensured our return, so we’re helping them return as well.”

The territory of Whitney’s band, the Sinixt, extends from Kettle Falls, in Washington State, to the Big Bend area north of Revelstoke, B.C. The Canadian government declared the Sinixt people extinct in 1956 as they were negotiating the first Columbia River Treaty. “They declared us extinct so they didn’t have to do anything,” Whitney told me in his office in Inchelium, Washington, approximately 24 miles as the crow flies from Kettle Falls, which now lies dormant beneath Franklin D. Roosevelt “Lake.”

In order to have the Sinixts’ rights recognized in Canada, Whitney’s uncle, Richard Desautel (after whom Whitney is named), shot an elk in British Columbia on traditional Sinixt territory and turned himself in to the provincial wildlife law enforcement agency. After a series of court victories and appeals in 2021, Desautel and the Sinixt won a landmark supreme court victory in Canada that forced the government to recognize their Aboriginal rights in British Columbia. The Tribe recently opened an office in Nelson, B.C. to further assert those rights.

Meanwhile, the Tribes haven’t slowed their efforts to restore their community. Next up are burrowing owls, Whitney says, and if possible, buffalo. But only if they’re allowed to run free, he says. Whitney cites historical evidence of the presence of buffalo in the Tribes’ territory. “A lot of stories I’ve been told were of folks back in the day who would jump on their horses, ride over to Montana, and round up a bunch of buffalo and bring them back. And then they would persist, however many years, until they either ate them all, they dispersed too far, or they died,” he says. The Kalispel Tribe recently gifted the Tribes 33 buffalo, which they released on the range at the beginning of October. “Our goals are being developed and will be compiled into a bison management plan over the winter months,” Whitney says.

Whitney loves the work of restoring his community. “We talk about animals like people, like friends,” he says. “I grew up in the woods learning about different animals, and spent time with my father and uncle. A lot of them aren’t around anymore,” he says.

Whitney thinks back to a separate ceremonial release of salmon he participated in at the inundated site of Kettle Falls, where he released salmon into waters that hadn’t known them since the dam blocked access to their ancestral spawning grounds. “It was pretty emotional,” he says. Not long after, some of those same salmon were caught by anglers in the Canadian reaches of the Columbia River. “We have proven that they will go to Canada,” he says.

Traveling in parallel with Whitney and his Sinixt relatives in Canada, the salmon are also traveling north. And along their way, the spawning salmon the Tribes have released will provide information about the suitability of spawning habitat along their journey. In turn, this will likely put pressure on the U.S. government to ensure that salmon can pass through the dams on the Columbia River and spawn through the Colville Confederated Tribes’ lands on up into the Canadian headwaters of the Columbia River.

Essentially, voice by voice, individual by individual, the Tribes are working together to restore, protect, and sustain their community on lands under their jurisdiction by managing those lands in line with their cultural and traditional values with the aid of science. By strengthening the very fabric of the ecosystems their ancestors have been stewarding since time immemorial, they’re strengthening their vital role in those systems—in that community, in that chorus. In this way, the community itself evolves together toward a natural balance that is abundant, resilient, and mutually reciprocal.

“It makes my heart happy,” Whitney says. “It heals me.”

This story was produced in partnership with YES! Magazine, a nonprofit and independent publisher of solutions journalism.

Rico Moore

Rico Moore

Rico Moore is a freelance journalist based in Port Townsend, Washington, whose work has been published by High Country News, The Margin, among others. He is also on the board of directors for the Society of Environmental Journalists.

David Moskowitz

David Moskowitz

David Moskowitz's current work as a photographer focuses on wildlife and wildlands conservation, with an emphasis on mountain landscapes and the intersection of Indigenous sovereignty and conservation in western North America. He is the photographer and author of three books: Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest, Wolves in the Land of Salmon, and Caribou Rainforest. He resides in north-central Washington State.

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