Once they get into the river, “their instinct is just to go upstream. They’ll go as far as they can to see what’s there,” he said.
On a recent day, McMillan pointed out an adult steelhead as it swam from the murky, grey waters of the Elwha river into clear Indian Creek, one of two tributaries open to the fish now that the Elwha Dam is gone.
In recent weeks, McMillan and another tribal biologist have been counting steelhead fish nests in Indian Creek and Little River. So far they’ve counted 108 redds in those tributaries, as well as a couple in the main river.
That’s about two-thirds of what biologists were seeing before the dam was removed, he said.
The fish are providing a rich nutrient source for river-dependent wildlife, such as river otters and American dippers, a small grey aquatic songbird.
Biologists have radio-tagged and taken tissue samples of river otters to understand what they’re eating. Early results show there’s been an increase in marine nutrients in the animals studied, said Kim Sager-Fradkin, a wildlife biologist with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
“They’re taking up marine nutrients definitely and sooner than we expected,” she said.
The tribe has also been collaborating with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to study the impact of dam removal and return of salmon on American dippers and other birds.
“We know that they’re getting access to salmon, and we know there are potential benefits of that,” said Christopher Tonra, a research fellow with the Smithsonian, who is in process of finalizing study results.
When salmon first migrated upriver after the first dam was removed, the dippers keyed in on them right away and were observed gobbling up fish eggs as they spawned, he said.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “I can’t believe how fast everything has happened.”