After a 100-year absence, sockeye return to Lake Cle Elum

LAKE CLE ELUM, Wash. - For the first time in more than a century, sockeye salmon are returning to Lake Cle Elum high in the Cascades.

The project led by the Yakama Indian tribe - on a bare bone's budget - is getting applause across the continent.

And this weekend, tribal members were there to witness something not seen in more than 100 years - sockeye salmon returning from the Pacific Ocean back home to Lake Cle Elum at last.

So historic is this for the Yakama Tribe that they call it simply "the return."

"I feel gratitude. Gratitude to The Creator for allowing us to be able to bring these fish back from extinction," says Virgil Lewis of the Yakama Tribal Council.

It wasn't easy.

Elders say you could cross the river on the backs of the sockeye in the old days - until dams destroyed it all.

The, in 2009, 1,000 sockeye were transplanted to Lake Cle Elum from elsewhere. More were added each year.

And incredibly, they started spawning here - in gravel beds untouched for a century.

The juveniles began finding their way over dams to the Pacific Ocean. Then, surviving their way back, unable to climb the last few dams, the Yakama waited until - there they were, swimming through a fish counter beneath Roza Dam.

And, this week, with a lot of help from others and a little help from a truck, the first 167 sockeye returned home.

"I had a great grandmother who was 120 years old when she died, and she'd talk about what The Prophet said was going to happen to this place," says Virginia Beaver, a 91-year-old Yakama elder. "And it has happened. That's why I'm here because I'm very impressed with what you're doing here. We need all the support we can get, to take care of our environment, and everything that goes with it."

The Yakama Tribe says this is only the beginning. They want more sockeye, other species and more lakes. But this project is already a success because returning sockeye to Lake Cle Elum is about far more than fish.

It is possible that the sockeye could get around the dams on their own, but it'd require a lot of money for fish ladders and other changes.