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Kitsap County counts its bugs

Under terms of the Endangered Species Act, Kitsap County spent Wenesday morning taking stock of its bugs.

County officials have been working for at least two years with the federal government to craft a salmon protection plan that complies with the spirit and intent of the ESA. The idea is to design a package of regulations and policies for Kitsap County that promote the preservation and restoration of threatened salmon species dependent on local waters.

Any and all controversies surrounding the salmon protection plan aside, one specific component to the plan plan involves monitoring Kitsap County streams to determine whether they are safe for fish and humans.

One way to do that is to study the bugs living in those streams.

“Monitoring stream bugs with help from volunteers and county staff are one of the things we are doing and continue to do,” said Natural Resources director Keith Folkerts. “That effort is outlined in our draft salmon plan, which will hopefully be adopted soon.”

Valerie Koehler, a Stream Team specialist with the County’s Stream and Stormwater Management (SSWM) department, along with several volunteers have already surveyed various streams throughout the county this year.

“There are three different groups of bugs we monitor in the streams,” said Koehler. “They are the May Fly, Stone Fly and Caddis Fly. They are good indicators of whether a stream is healthy or not because, while they are resilient, they are also sensitive to certain types of pollution.”

County officials are particularly worried about pesticides and herbicides that rainwater tends to whisk away into nearby streams and about large concentrations of minerals in the creeks.

But for Koehler and her team to successfully produce trend data regarding the health of Kitsap streams, the county opted to embark on a three-year study.

To that end, Kitsap officials competed for and won last year a $26,360 Centennial Clean Water Fund match grant from the state Department of Ecology. SSWM’s Stream Team plans to use that grant funding to monitor the health of 19 streams across Kitsap County — from Port Gamble to Olalla, and from East to West Kitsap — over the next three years, starting this year.

While the funding pays for both volunteer training and the equipment necessary to carry out monitoring procedures, the hope is the project will pay dividends, not just in terms of ESA-compliance, but as a feeling of personal accomplishment among Stream Team members.

“What a beautiful area,” Koehler exclaimed, as she stepped from a Kitsap County-issued van. The 32-year-old gazed out toward Harding Creek from atop a cliff-like overhang. The creek is located just south of the Nellita community, between Seabeck and the Mason County line, drains in the the center of Hood Canal.

“This view is just outstanding,” she said.

Koehler and her volunteer Stream Team, which is made up of Tammy Youngblood and Mauro Heine, were set on a recent Wednesday to scour Harding Creek for insects. Youngblood is attending Western Washington University through Olympic College annex classes and working as a stream restoration internist for the county. Heine is filling a role at the county through AmeriCorps.

Under the grant program, the trio has already inspected 20 sites over the last few months including September and October. This was their last inspection for the year.

“In doing this kind of work, we’re all just following our passions,” said Koehler, looking from Youngblood to Heine, who both nodded their agreement.

With hip-waders strapped on and equipment in tow, their passions led the team down a steep slope toward Harding Creek as they wended their way through sticker bushes, stinging nettles, Douglas fir and other growth.

Once at the bottom, they trudged in the mud of the stream, setting up their equipment for the study at hand.

“It’s safer to monitor streams during that time of the year because water levels are low enough,” said Koehler. “And it’s safer for fish too because the adult fish haven’t yet returned to spawn and the juveniles have already left.”

Harding Creek, which is located within the Holly neighborhood of Kitsap, drains into the middle of Hood Canal and is known to carry coho and fall chum. Although threatened species aren’t known to traditionally use this particular stream, Koehler says it’s still important to keep it healthy in case they need to use it in the future and for the systems that already rely on the creek.

The trio took three samples from one site and another three further upstream where the water column hadn’t yet been stirred up.

“For quality control reasons, we are required to move up stream and gather additional samples,” said Koehler. “We don’t always do that on the same day we are here. In fact, we are encouraged to go at different times.”

The team scrapes the bottom-dwelling bugs from small rocks, letting them flow into a net, from which they are later retrieved.

“All the bugs we find are preserved in alcohol,” said Koehler. “Then we send the samples off to a state certified lab for testing.”

The team repeated this testing system several times over across Kitsap this year.

By next year, Koehler says scientists will have finished analyzing the samples she and her team submitted to them, and initial data will be available as to how healthy county streams actually are for fish and humans alike.

It will take another two years before trend data is established.

“We hope to continue this program and secure grant funding in another few years,” said Koehler, who recently earned her Master’s Degree in education from Seattle University.

Before earning her masters, Koehler spent two years in the Peace Corps, teaching biology in East Africa.

“I feel very good knowing that I am working with people who continue to restore habitat to a more pristine, or back to a more pristine level,” she said. “We want to do what we can to boost salmon populations up to sustainable levels.

“I think it’s really a reflection of who we are as human beings because we have so much influence and control of where we live,” she said.

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