Looking down the Nisqually River towards Glacier Bridge. Eagle Peak in background.
National Park Service photo by Emily Brouwer

Nisqually Salmon and the Changing State of the Wild

Writer Bruce Barcott considers what it actually means when we regard a place as being "wild."

As we rounded a creek bend, the stench of wild rotting salmon hit us full in the face: Robust and organic, packed with earthy flavor. Like the sneaker of a teenage boy, it carried notes of glandular eruption and decay.

David Troutt, my guide and companion for the day, paused to fill his lungs.

“Nothing else has that particular aroma, does it?” he said.

The breeze shifted. The scent vanished. Troutt hiked his leg over a downed cedar and continued wading up Muck Creek, a Nisqually River tributary east of Olympia. I followed, taking care to avoid salmon nests, known as redds, in the shallow gravel. Around us hundreds of pink and chinook salmon hovered, noses upstream. They held in shaded pools, then burst up the riffles.

If you do a little research and watch the calendar, it’s possible to wander the banks of nearly any river, creek or stream in the Pacific Northwest and witness the most primal urges of the blood-driven world come alive. I know, I know: spawning salmon are our regional cliché, like lobster in Maine and oil in Texas. As symbol and metaphor the fish has grown banal. But not so in the flesh! It often amazes me how few people have seen a salmon run with their own eyes, have watched a 10-pound chum writhe into a grassy riverbank, fervent and driven, and take 10 minutes to die. It is a transcendent moment.

Years ago a spawned-out pink expired in my hands on the banks of the Skagit River. I remember the moment to this day. Not long ago my son and I hopped a highway barrier to see chum salmon return to Chico Creek near Bremerton. It was like stepping into Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, with tavern patrons, golfers and Escalade drivers going about their business oblivious to the mythic drama playing out around them.

So when the opportunity arose to see the salmon again, I jumped at the chance. In the autumn of 2013 I joined Troutt, natural resources director for the Nisqually Indian Tribe, on a salmon survey up Muck Creek. I wanted to spend a day with him watching natural selection in action. I also wanted to see what some might consider “unnatural” selection because both were happening on the Nisqually River.

That fall about 37,000 chinook returned to the Nisqually system alongside a record 800,000 pink salmon. Troutt kept a running count of the chinook he spotted as we made our way, armored in bib waders, toward the Muck Creek headwaters. Chinook normally don’t spawn in the creek, but a spate of rain raised the flow and attracted the big lunkers.

“There’s a female holding in the shade over there,” Troutt said. “Maybe considering that spot as a redd. And across the way there you’ve got three males. The females compete for the best habitat. And the males compete for the females.” He turned to me. “Now you’re watching natural selection happen.”

Of the chinook we saw, 1 in 10 was wild−that is, born in the river. The rest were hatchery-raised. In Muck Creek, the two mixed. But about a mile upriver on the Nisqually, the fish were sorted at a weir, a kind of fence strung across the river. A crew of tribal fishermen separated wild fish from the hatchery-raised. Hatchery fish have their adipose fins clipped as juveniles, so they’re easy to identify. “Only the wild chinook are allowed to continue upriver to spawn,” Troutt explained. The idea is to strengthen genetic ties to the unique conditions of the Nisqually River system, generation over generation, by not allowing hatchery genes to dilute the breeding pool: unnatural selection in action.

I’ve been thinking about that day on Muck Creek as I reflect on the changing state of the wild. Or rather “the wild,” a concept that’s come in for a radical rethink. Two of my fellow Western writers, Christopher Solomon and Jon Mooallem, recently highlighted the shifting debate–Solomon in a controversial New York Times op-ed piece, Mooallem in his book Wild Ones. For decades the word has been associated with our concept of wilderness. In 1964 Congress passed The Wilderness Act, a landmark law based on the idea that the best thing humans could do for nature was protect it and leave it alone. “We should be guardians,” said the Act’s father, Howard Zahniser, “not gardeners.”

Fifty years passed. Wilderness areas expanded from 9 million to 109 million acres. Over time, though, we realized that all that protection couldn’t stop the inexorable loss of biodiversity. Then came the game changer: Global warming. Climate change is forcing us to stop pretending that we’re merely guardians. By pumping centuries of carbon into the atmosphere we’ve altered the seasons, acidified the oceans and changed the landscape everywhere on Earth. It turns out we’ve been gardeners all along.


A salmon falls short of its destination along the upper Skagit. Photo by Glenn Nelson
A salmon falls short of its destination along the upper Skagit River. Photo by Glenn Nelson


“This reality has pushed respected scientists to advocate what many wilderness partisans past and present would consider blasphemy…” wrote Solomon. “We need to toss out the ‘hands-off’ philosophy that has guided our stewardship for 50 years. We must replace it with a more nuanced, flexible approach−including a willingness to put our hands on America’s wildest places more, not less, if we’re going to help them to adapt and thrive in the diminished future we’ve thrust upon them.”

The idea of wild purity becomes more problematic when you consider that the wild Nisqually chinook passing the tribe’s weir aren’t the river’s original stock. “Wild chinook actually went extinct in the Nisqually in the ‘60s,” Troutt told me. To re-establish a native run, biologists began transplanting Green River chinook into Nisqually hatcheries in the late 1970s. “We stopped importing fish from the Green (River) in 1990 to promote local adaptation of the hatchery stock,” he said. The Green River flows into the notoriously polluted Duwamish River, an EPA Superfund site. So the new “wild” Nisqually chinook have been naturally selected for their ability to survive the worst industrial witch’s brew we can concoct.

“The Nisqually’s habitat is good, so slowly, over time, we’re hoping they become more of a Nisqually population,” said Troutt. That is, a genetically distinct population adapted to this river’s unique temperature, flow, food and seasonality.

Is this meddling? Sure. But meddling happens whether we see it or not. The Nisqually River used to be renowned for its steelhead. Now that run is near ruin. Young steelhead thrive in the healthy river, but 95 percent of them die in Puget Sound before they reach open ocean. Pink salmon, by contrast, thrive in part because they move quickly from river to sea, darting past the poisons and predators of Puget Sound like a man running through a house on fire. By screwing up Puget Sound, we’ve selected for pink salmon and against steelhead. Result: 750,000 pinks now return to the Nisqually, while fewer than 500 steelhead show up.

Maybe it’s time to temper our veneration of terms like “wild” and “natural.” When Darwin wrote about natural selection he didn’t mean “natural” in the sense that it occurred outside humanity’s influence. Perhaps we need a better term for what’s happening on the Nisqually River. Is it unnatural? Forced? No. I would call it “consciously guided evolution.”

It’s a term that applies to our decisions in the urban core as well as in rural spaces. When we densify our city neighborhoods, encourage mixed-use retail, expand our light rail network, add bike lanes and increase parking meter rates, we’re consciously guiding the evolution of our city beyond automobile dependency. When we raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, it’s a step to encourage the survival of the city’s working class.

As we returned toward the confluence of Muck Creek and the Nisqually, David Troutt talked with me about the network of life radiating out from the fish rotting at our feet. “There are 127 different species that depend on salmon,” he said. “Insect and plants, deer and bears and humans. Salmon themselves. So to see upwards of a million fish come up the river and reconnect with those 127 species and make them all healthier, well, it’s kind of amazing. All of that happens just because one species returns home.”

Our own network of influences extends a bit broader. There are 1.2 million known species of life on Earth. What humans do affects them all. For better or worse we are both their guardians and their gardeners. We can connect with them thoughtlessly, as we have for centuries. Or we can encourage the practice of consciously guided evolution every day in the decisions we make about our cities, our rivers and ourselves.


  • Bruce Barcott

    Bainbridge Island author Bruce Barcott is a regular contributor to National Geographic and Outside Magazine. His latest book, Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America, was published in April.

  • Glenn Nelson

    Glenn Nelson is a journalist, photographer and Web entrepreneur in Seattle who is currently developing The Trail Posse to encourage diversity in the outdoors.