BIG SALMON Ranch

A BIG LEGACY Project
An ecosystem approach to saving the Southern Resident Orcas.
In October 2020, the Center for Whale Research leaped into the Elwha River recovery efforts by purchasing a 45-acre ranch bordering both sides of the river, just north of the Olympic National Park boundary. This stretch of the mainstream river is now where a majority of the remnant native Chinook salmon spawn. The ranch, smack in the middle of the recovering Elwha Valley habitat, is named BIG SALMON Ranch. 

In 2014, the United States federal government completed the largest hydroelectric dam removal project in U. S. history.

Six years later, Washington State’s Elwha River waterway on the Olympic Peninsula is healing and thriving: a growing population of endangered salmon species, Chinook included, has developed in the revived river and stream habitats. The estuary and coastal habitats are recovering, bird and animal populations are growing, and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s interests are valued.

BIG SALMON Ranch is nestled along both shores of the middle mainstream Elwha River, between the former Mills and Aldwell lakebeds created by the one-time Elwha River dams. This stretch of the mainstream river is where a majority of the remnant native Chinook salmon now spawn.

A CWR
BIG LEGACY Project
Our MISSION

The reason and mission for this purchase are to celebrate and assist the recovery of the native salmon in this river ecosystem now that the two Elwha River dams have been removed. For 100 years, humanmade barricades blocked salmon access to spawning habitat in the national park’s pristine upper watersheds.

For three decades, the Center for Whale Research (CWR) has been advocating the relatively tame issue of salmon recovery based on science and rational management of fisheries in the Pacific Northwest. We have been championing with facts the impacts of dwindling fish stocks on the Southern Resident killer whales [SRKW orcas] and the Salish Sea fishers.

If you’ve been following CWRefforts in recent years, you are aware of the federal government agencies that choose not to remove the salmon-killing Lower Snake River dams. These four dams were orchestrated at huge taxpayer expense. They caused catastrophic environmental damage, damning the Snake River ecosystem’s salmon to extinction, thereby threatening our beloved Southern Resident killer whales with the same fate. Thanks to generous grant support, CWR spent over $250,000 on a campaign of truth about the fiscal and environmental disaster of the Snake River debacle. These truths were met with propaganda from the U.S. government and ineffectual courses of action by the Washington State government’s Orca Task Force.

 

So, the Center for Whale Research decided to move our conservation efforts in a new direction, to do something positive in support of the Southern Resident orcas: we became landowners along the Washington State's Elwha River . . . with a noble purpose. In October 2020, we leaped into the Elwha River recovery efforts by purchasing a 45-acre ranch bordering both sides of the river, just north of the Olympic National Park boundary. (1) The ranch, smack in the middle of the recovering Elwha Valley habitat, is named BIG SALMON Ranch.

 

BIG SALMON Ranch is nestled along both shores of the middle mainstream Elwha River, between the former Mills and Aldwell lakebeds created by the one-time Elwha River dams. This stretch of the mainstream river is now where a majority of the remnant native Chinook salmon spawn. CWR proposes to keep this Elwha ecosystem habitat in an undisturbed, non-resource-extraction condition in perpetuity so that Chinook salmon can recover to pre-dam levels of 25,000-33,000 returning adults in the coming decades.

The BIG SALMON Ranch undertaking is a huge step for the Center for Whale Research. It will be a legacy project. Our ongoing premier research project, Orca Survey, has documented the recovery of the SRKW population since 1976, after the extensive capturing of orcas for the aquarium industry in the 1960s. And, we’ve documented the drop in numbers of Southern Resident orcas as their food resources (particularly Chinook salmon) have dwindled.

(1) The Olympic National Park comprises nearly one million acres of mountains, valleys, wilderness, and seashore.

Illustration by CWR's Katie Jones

Food for the ORCAS
Food for the PEOPLE

Elwha River Chinook salmon won’t alone sustain the Southern Resident killer whales. However, it does offer the best chance of food recovery for the resident orcas in the Salish Sea and for the Lower Elwha Klallam peoples who have depended upon these fish for millennia.

 

We at the Center for Whale Research want to be part of this good story.

This level of Chinook salmon abundance from the Elwha River ecosystem can provide a healthy food source for the Southern Resident orcas and a sustainable, nearshore artisanal fishery in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

 

The approximately 7,400 Chinook that recently returned to the Elwha created roughly 900 “redds,” each of which contained about 5,000 fertilized eggs. Optimally, over 4,000,000 baby Chinook “smolts” will be produced by the Elwha. By 2024, this could result in 80,000-250,000 returning adult Chinook salmon for the whales and ocean fishers to catch! (2)

 

While the SRKWs favored prey becomes more plentiful, the Center for Whale Research may utilize the upper land portion of BIG SALMON Ranch to develop a sustainable, soil-friendly organic farm. On a scale sufficient to feed a neighborhood: perhaps in a Community Supported Agriculture format.

The collapse of British Columbia’s Fraser River Chinook populations in recent years has made it imperative that other food sources for the SRKWs be found and encouraged to recover as quickly as possible. Regrettably, all of the natural populations of Chinook salmon that spawn in Salish Sea rivers are now endangered and/or threatened with extinction (some are already extinct) due to past overfishing and present habitat degradation. If other major runs of Chinook salmon in Southern Resident orca habitat were healthy, like the Snake and Columbia River systems once were, the whales might be okay. But virtually all of these other ecosystems have major habitat issues. 

(2) The adult return is calculated using a range of SAR (smolt to adult ratio) of 2 to 6% considered sustainable.

Elwha River
History & Habitat Restoration

Lower Elwha Klallam tribe members during the Elwha River dam removal celebration.

Photograph by John Gussman/DOUBLECLICK PRODUCTIONS. Used with permission.

In 2014, the United States federal government completed the largest hydroelectric dam removal project in U. S. history. Six years later, Washington State’s Elwha River waterway on the Olympic Peninsula is healing and thriving: a growing population of endangered salmon species, Chinook included, has developed in the revived river and stream habitats. The estuary and coastal habitats are recovering, bird and animal populations are growing, and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s interests are valued.

Elwha River History & Habitat Restoration Resources

 

Read about the Elwha watershed recovery:

News Story - Elwha River: Roaring Back to Life (Lynda V. Mapes/Seattle Times)

Read about the freeing of the mighty Elwha River:

Book - elwha I A RIVER REBORN (Lynda V. Mapes)

Learn more about the largest dam removal in U.S. history:

Video - After Largest Dam Removal in U.S. History, This River Is Thriving (National Geographic)

Watch time lapse of Elwha River dam removals:

Video - After Time Lapse of Elwha River Dam Removals (Burke Museum)

Watch the geographical changes that resulted from the Elwha River dam removals: 

Video - Image of the Week - Elwha River Dam Removal (USGS/United States Geological Survey)

 

Learn about Elwha River restoration and current research:

Website - Elwha River Restoration, Olympic National Park, Washington (National Park Service)

 

Learn about the people who pushed for the removal of the Elwha River Dams: 

Documentary Film - Return of the River

Learn about the environmental issues presented by hydroelectric dams: 

Documentary Film - DamNation | The Problem with Hydropower (Patagonia/Stoecker Ecological & Felt Soul Media Production)

Elwha River History & Habitat Restoration photographs by John Gussman/DOUBLECLICK PRODUCTIONS. Used with permission.

 

We do not really have to do anything on the ranch except let nature take its course without the threat of development. The river is coming back, and we will help document the return of native wildlife and plants as an example of how nature works best. We now have forty-five acres on both sides of the river strategically located on the mainstream Elwha where the Chinook salmon are returning. The county has instituted watershed protections, we own the land, and the river headwaters are in the Olympic National Park that will be closed to development ad infinitum ... just like CWR's BIG SALMON Ranch.

- Ken Balcomb, CWR Founder and Senior Scientist

More photographs of
BIG SALMON Ranch 

In October 2020, the Center for Whale Research purchased a 45-acre ranch bordering both sides of the Elwha river, just north of the Olympic National Park boundary. BIG SALMON Ranch is in the middle of Washington State's recovering Elwha Valley habitat.

  • Facebook - White Circle
  • Twitter - White Circle
  • Instagram - White Circle

© 2021 Center for Whale Research

The Center for Whale Research is a 501c3 nonprofit organization registered in Washington State.

All rights reserved. No part of the material found on this website may be reproduced or utilized in any form, or by any means, without the prior written consent of the Center for Whale Research.  All members of CWR are non-voting members.