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Dammed No More: Chinook Return to Elwha River

Chinook salmon have returned to the Elwha River above where the dam used to be, heralding the return of fish to millenia-old spawning grounds in the wake of dam removal.
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A century later, the salmon still know where to go.

In what the National Parks Service (NPS) is hailing as the Return of the Kings, adult Chinook salmon have been spotted in Olympic National Park in Washington, less than five months after the removal of the Elwha Dam, which became operational in 1913.

“The return of the salmon marks an important milestone in the restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem and a historic moment in the history of the park,” the NPS said in a statement on August 20.

This follows the June sighting of steelhead trout spawning in a tributary of the river, as reported by The Los Angeles Times. The $325 million dam-removal project, a partnership between the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the NPS, is part of an effort to restore the fish runs that had, before the dams were built, gone on for millennia.

The Elwha Dam was demolished in March 2011, and the Glines Canyon Dam, eight miles upstream, is in the process of being demolished, according to the Peninsula Daily News.

The dams had relegated the fish to the Elwha River’s lower five miles. Once the Glines Canyon Dam is gone, these and other fish species will be free to roam in 70 miles of spawning and rearing habitat, mostly within the national park’s boundaries, the Peninsula Daily News said.

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The Elwha Dam removal also uncovered the tribe’s creation site, a sacred place where the first Klallam people were bathed and blessed by the Creator. For the 100 years that the dam was in place, it was underwater. Human use dates back at least 8,000 years, according to evidence the NPS found near the creation location.

"This has been an extremely exciting summer," said Todd Suess, the acting superintendent of Olympic National Park, in a statement headlined "Return of the Kings." "First we see a renewal of a culture with the uncovering of the creation site of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and now we see the renewal of the legendary Chinook in Olympic National Park."

The two dams had been built, without fish ladders, to provide electricity to paper mills that have since closed.

Dam removal is underway in a number of places, most notably the Penobscot River, and proposed for a number of others. And not a moment too soon: A recent study found that dams may be a hidden source of greenhouse gases.

More on the Elwha Dam and removal:

Video Spotlight: Elwha River Dam Removal

In Washington, Demolishing Two Dams So That the Salmon May Go Home