Bull trout in Gold Creek and the Keechelus Reservoir near Snoqualmie Pass are facing an uphill battle but the public can do their part to help revive fish populations in the future. Photo by Eric Anderson, a retired WDFW biologist.

Help protect bull trout in Gold Creek and Keechelus Reservoir by recreating responsibly

Once found throughout the Columbia River Basin, bull trout residing in the waters of the central Cascades are facing enormous challenges

If you’ve traveled through the central Cascade Mountains then you’ve likely seen the Keechelus Reservoir, which lies next to Interstate 90, one of the busiest thoroughfares in Washington.

Here under the seemingly picture-postcard landscape is a battle of fish survival that goes unnoticed by those traveling past the snow fed Keechelus Reservoir, covering nearly 2,500 acres in Kittitas County.

These native fish known as bull trout are facing significant challenges and were listed statewide as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1998. Bull trout spawn in the cold Yakima Basin headwaters, and migrate extensively up and down Gold Creek, and the Yakima and Naches rivers.

Once found throughout the Columbia River Basin, bull trout have been monitored in this region since the 1980s where isolated populations have declined to extremely low levels. There are now possibly as few as 50 adult bull trout remaining in Gold Creek and the Keechelus Reservoir.

Late July through October is one of the most critical times for bull trout living in the upper Yakima River basin when water in the reservoir is lowered to very low levels leading to frequent stranding of juvenile bull trout.

Other factors negatively impacting bull trout during late summer and early fall include an exposed reservoir bed, blocked fish passage for adult migration, degraded instream habitat, decline in native plant growth, invasive species, and lethal rising water temperatures coupled with a changing climate.

Fish restoration projects and extensive studies have been ongoing by many state, federal, and tribal governments as well as volunteer organizations to further curb their decline before it is too late.

This aerial shot is looking downstream from Gold Creek at the Keechelus Reservoir. Photo by the Kittitas Conservation Trust.

By using adaptive management, bull trout survival increased significantly from the 2019–2020 rearing cycle. Gold Creek survival was 98% (up from 74%), with 63 released into Keechelus Reservoir. Kachess River survival was 89% (up from 14%) with 531 released into Kachess Reservoir. Rescue and transport operations in the 2021–2022 rearing cycle were also successful.

The Yakama Nation is working in coordination with bull trout partners, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to formulate a 10-year vison. This vision will include expanding “life boating” (rescuing, transporting, and rearing) juvenile fish populations and beginning the supplementation and reintroduction of bull trout below the reservoirs. Permitting is scheduled to begin in late winter of 2022, and reintroductions to begin in 2024. You can find out details on the Yakama Nation Fisheries website.

Many other partners include the U.S. Forest Service, NOAA Fisheries, Mid-Columbia Fisheries, Bureau of Reclamation, Salmon Recovery Board, irrigators throughout the Yakima Basin, and the Department of Ecology.

To further ensure these fish aren’t negatively impacted, we ask that those who frequent the area to help protect bull trout and recreate responsibly.

Tracks mark where a spot where a vehicle illegally drove through the exposed creek. Photo by WDFW

BE AWARE OF YOUR ACTIVITIES — And help protect bull trout!

Illegal driving and camping damages habitat

Illegal recreation can undermine habitat, stream channels, restrict fish movement, and negatively impact bull trout. Keechelus Reservoir, the boat launch area, and Gold Creek are Day Use Only. Use of these areas is prohibited between 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. The State Park picnic area, with access to the Palouse to Cascade trail, is also closed to overnight camping.

All vehicles are prohibited in the Keechelus Reservoir and Gold Creek (RCW 77.55.031). This includes All-Terrain Vehicles/Off-Road Vehicles — commonly referred as ATVs/ORVs. The only exception is the use of the designated route on the southern end of the parking lot. The use of this route is restricted to the immediate delivery and retrieval of watercraft. No parking is allowed.

Tire tracks from illegal driving and overland camping modify and erode stream channels. This can lead to bull trout becoming stranded and unable to swim upstream. Vehicle use damages the soil and vegetation, causes erosion, sediment and pollution in streams, increased stream temperature, and loss of water quality and stream bank stability.

Photo of a young bull trout by WDFW.

Rock dams hurt bull trout

Rock dams modify or prevent flow of water, which can block bull trout from moving upstream to find cool water, spawn, and feed. Enjoy the view of the creek, but please avoid any activities which disturb habitat or harass fish.

Check fishing regulations

The Keechelus Reservoir itself is open for fishing when the reservoir water level is higher than Gold Creek. Gold Creek is closed to all fishing. Anglers should check the WDFW website for current fishing regulations.

Learn more

For information about bull trout rescue, habitat restoration efforts in the area and public involvement, visit the Gold Creek Valley Restoration Project and the Yakima Integrated Plan. The Kittitas Conservation Trust also has an informative YouTube video on the Gold Creek Restoration Project. Other details on bull trout can be found the WDFW website and the Yakama Nation Fisheries provides details of ongoing restoration projects.

Extremely low water levels of Gold Creek during the summer months when the reservoir is drawn down. Photo by WDFW

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.