A Fisheries Pioneer | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

A Fisheries Pioneer

Amy Stewart was ODFW's first district-wide female fish biologist

A Fisheries Pioneer
Tim Welhde
Amy Stewart, along with representatives from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, is vocal in opposition to a planned Off-Highway Vehicle trail in the Ochocos.

"I was told women belong in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant," recalls former state Fish Biologist Amy Stuart of Prineville. In 1983, she was hired by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife as its first district-wide female fish biologist, based in Prineville. With natural resources degrees from Cornell and Colorado State Universitiy, she interviewed for the position and was selected based on her knowledge, leadership skills and passion for conservation. One problem: her boss was the lone negative vote, cast among a board of seven people.

Her first days on the job were spent with that new boss showing her around the district and introducing her to colleagues and community leaders. "He was really upset and resented that they hired a female—and two days after they hired me, he left and moved to Madras," she says with a laugh. That was the beginning of a 31-year career at ODFW. She retired in late 2014 and now volunteers as a board member of Central Oregon LandWatch, fishes and hunts with her husband, friends and two dogs. She's still a biologist at heart and shows up for the annual Crooked River fish survey of native redband trout.

A career in the outdoors

Growing up, she describes herself as a tomboy. Along with her twin sister she was constantly in the outdoors, sailing, kayaking and fishing. Her sister eventually chose a forestry career, while Stewart became interested in fish and wildlife. "I knew I wanted to work with the critters in the outdoors," she says.

When it comes to bodies of water, the Crooked River in ODFW's Prineville District was a big focus for Stewart. Famous for native redband trout, Stewart's work has made a major impact on that fishery. As the lead author on the Crooked River Basin Study of the trout, she began tracking the redband population and health throughout the basin. Up to that point, no baseline information was available. Knowing the region was historically a major producer of spring chinook salmon and summer steelhead, she began sampling the redband habitat and populations throughout the basin. The plan she helped write set the guidelines for managing fish into the future throughout the basin.

Fishery concerns

Noting the constant push and pull between having enough water for agriculture and the fishery, Stuart's biggest concern is a common one: having enough water to sustain healthy fish. "That's a conundrum in Central Oregon because there's a certain segment of us that wants healthy rivers able to provide important stream habitat for fish and wildlife species, but we also have irrigated agriculture which is an important part of Oregon's economy."

Like many who fish, she wants more in-stream flow during the fall and winter months to sustain healthier fish populations. Low stream flows during winter months, when water is being stored in the Prineville Reservoir for irrigation, can lead to higher temperatures and mortality rates for fish downstream.

"He was really upset and resented that they hired a female—and two days after they hired me, he left and moved to Madras." —Amy Stewart

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When the Crooked River legislation was passed in 2014, she says, it was meant to provide "surety" for irrigators in the Crooked River Basin. At the same time, she says, "It's probably increased the harm and risk for not only native redband, but the production of steelhead." She cites ODFW studies that say when water is released at 30 cubic feet per second or lower in the winter, it has resulted in a "significant drop in fish populations."

Fish & OHVs

Stuart, like many others, is also critical of a proposed 137-mile off-highway vehicle trail in the Ochoco National Forest. Organizations and agencies such as the Oregon Hunters Association and ODFW have registered strong objections to the planned trail.

"Deep Creek in the Ochocos is probably one of my all-time favorite streams. I love wet-wading on hot summer days, fishing for little redband trout in that stream, and those are the places that should be protected from certain uses." A portion of the Summit OHV trail would run through the Deep Creek watershed and she worries about mudding and sentiment caused by motorized vehicles. "It's some of the premier fishing left in the whole forest and I'm very concerned about it."

Representatives from ODFW, her former employer, have been loud critics of the OHV plan, maintaining that motorized disturbance would also have a negative impact on some of the region's most important elk habitat. A decade-long battle over the trail proposed by the Ochoco National Forest may be coming to a head with a judge's decision expected soon, according to Oregon Wild, which is also in strong opposition.

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