Freshwater Habitat Conservation

Refuge staff survey streams for freshwater mussels/USFWS Photo

Freshwater habitats are a vital resource for a diversity of Willapa’s wildlife. Streams, ponds and wetlands support a variety of birds, fish, mammals, amphibians and invertebrates.

A Vital Link 

Freshwater habitats are crucial to much of Willapa NWR's wildlife and include streams, ponds and wetlands. Streams tie the estuary to the forest and create pathways for fish and nutrients to travel between the two. Optimal stream habitat provides protective cover, improved forage, and structural diversity that create in-stream riffles and pools for anadromous fish, especially adult and juvenile salmon and cutthroat trout. Land use practices have altered many of the area’s streams and they no longer support these fish.

Mending What Has Been Broken 

Stream enhancement and restoration improves habitat for refuge fish, amphibians and invertebrates. Enhancement and restoration efforts can include the addition of large woody debris and root wads to stream channels, removal of fish passage barriers (such as undersized culverts),  planting streamside vegetation to increase shade, rehabilitating spawning beds, and in some cases re-establishing populations of native fish and freshwater mussels. Enhancement work benefits other stream-dependent wildlife species, including the western brook lamprey, rare amphibian species, and a large variety of aquatic insects.

Learn more about Refuge conservation projects to enhance freshwater habitats:

Big Bits and Little Bits - a Stream Needs Them All 

Stream enhancement is undertaken as a management action to restore historic ecological processes and functions to refuge streams to benefit anadromous fish populations and other stream-dependent wildlife. Sometimes these conservation efforts are tied to estuary restoration through the removal of fish barriers and the connection of historic stream channels to the estuary. In some cases, stream habitat is enhanced by re-establishing large woody debris in a fashion that mimics natural material presumed to have been historically present in the stream. Large woody debris is placed in the existing stream channels by high-line cabling or other heavy equipment where feasible, keeping impacts to streamside habitat to a minimum. Channel structure is occassionally modified, fish barriers are removed, and portions of the riparian zone are restored by plantings. The Refuge has an environmental assessment for stream restoration that was signed in 2003.

Returning a Keystone Species 

As a management tool, Willapa National Wildlife Refuge has had a reintroduction program for salmonids, including chum and coho salmon as well as sea-run cutthroat trout, since 1996. Wild sea-run cutthroat trout have been introduced to several refuge streams, starting in December 2000 and continuing on an annual basis as fish have been available. The fish are trapped incidental to salmon hatchery operations at the Naselle and Nemah River hatcheries, transported to the Refuge, and released in refuge streams. During the relocation process, fish are released in small groups along a length of the target stream, primarily in pools. Fish are placed in buckets and hand-carried to the stream site. On occasion, fresh or frozen salmon eggs are also placed in pools or broadcast as a food source for the cutthroat trout. Salmon carcasses are also received from local fish hatcheries and are placed along streams to enhance nutrient levels.

In addition, the Refuge has maintained fish egg trays for egg reintroduction efforts for chum and coho salmon and conducts release of chum and coho fry. A chum restoration project was initiated in 1998 in cooperation with the Willapa Bay Regional Fisheries Enhancement Group and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.