Repatriated Colville Tribal Lands Benefit Okanogan River Steelhead

In late September, Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC) and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation permanently conserved the 2,524-acre Antoine Valley Ranch, returning ancestral lands to the Colville Tribes and delivering desperately needed water to Antoine Creek and its imperiled run of Okanogan River steelhead.

Antoine Valley Ranch spans 2.5 miles of Antoine Creek, a critical spawning stream for threatened summer steelhead that flows through the ancestral homelands of the Colville Tribes. For decades, this Columbia River tributary has run too low and warm for steelhead to survive and spawn.

“The repatriation of these lands to the Colville Tribes represents a great step forward for the original stewards of this part of the Okanogan River valley while making significant gains for an irreplaceable run of steelhead that depend on Antoine Creek for survival,” says Jarred-Michael Erickson, Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

In an effort to revive this critical stream, WRC purchased the ranch in 2020 and transferred half of it to the Colville that year with funding from the Washington Department of Ecology’s Streamflow Restoration Program. WRC held the second half of the property while working to secure additional funding from the Streamflow Restoration Program to permanently protect the remainder of the ranch and transfer it into Colville ownership, which is now complete.

WRC conveyed the ranch’s water rights to the Department of Ecology to be managed in partnership with the Colville Tribes for the benefit of Antoine Creek. Trout Unlimited assisted with dedicating the ranch’s water rights in-stream.

“We are very proud of what we were able to accomplish for Washington’s fish and wildlife, for streamflow on Antoine Creek, and for the people of the Okanogan River valley, all by working in partnership with the Colville Tribes and Western Rivers Conservancy,” says Vanessa Brinkhuis, the Washington Department of Ecology Streamflow Restoration Grant Unit Supervisor.

The conveyance includes Fanchers Dam, Washington’s second largest earthen dam and the key to reviving Antoine Creek. The dam sits on a separate upstream parcel, above natural barriers to steelhead. Because it does not impede steelhead migration, it will be left in place so tribal fishery managers can use it to strategically pulse cold flows downstream when fish need water the most.

The strategy will provide flow increases of up to 90 percent in Antoine Creek, calibrated to match seasonal needs of the steelhead that spawn in the stream. Importantly, the flow improvements in Antoine Creek will continue downstream into the Okanogan and Columbia Rivers.

In the coming years, the Colville Tribes also plan to conduct extensive in-stream, riparian and upland habitat restoration, benefitting the full range of species found on the ranch. Antoine Valley Ranch lies within the traditional territories of the Colville Tribes, who have inhabited this area for millennia. It was part of the original Colville Reservation but was ceded to the United States when the reservation was reduced in size by Congress in 1872. The Colville Tribes have sought to acquire the ranch for over a decade, making this property an especially important acquisition. 

“We are incredibly proud to partner with the Colville Tribes on this innovative project,” said Nelson Mathews, Vice President of Western Rivers Conservancy. “Using a dam designed to take water out of the creek as a tool for putting water back into it is unconventional, but the benefits for Okanogan steelhead will be game-changing. The project confirms our belief that land acquisition and great partnerships with Tribal Nations like the Colville can make a profoundly positive, permanent difference for fish and wildlife.”

Cover Photo Courtesy Ellen Bishop

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