Photo: Courtney Baxter/TNC
Leque Island was once entirely salt marsh.
But if you were to visit the island today, located west of Stanwood between Port Susan and Skagit bays, you would see vast wetlands and previously farmed fields that are no longer surrounded by perimeter dikes. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) began acquiring properties on Leque Island in 1974, and currently owns the entirety of the island in the Skagit Wildlife Area.
As WDFW and Ducks Unlimited launched a community outreach process for this restoration project in 2013, they partnered with local conservation organizations to bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to the design and construction through grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the first suite of Floodplains by Design projects. Then in July 2019, WDFW and partners began constructing the Leque Island Estuary Restoration Project. Removing over 2.4 miles of levee has restored 250 acres of tidal marsh habitat in the Stillaguamish River watershed where 85 percent of historic tidal marsh has been displaced. Estuaries are important for juvenile Chinook salmon as they transition from fresh to salt water, as well as shorebirds, waterfowl and a host of other species in the area. Because Puget Sound’s southern resident killer whales rely upon Chinook salmon for food, the project is also closely aligned with Orca recovery efforts.
Under beautiful blue skies on October 14, 2019, levees were pulled back, opening those 250 acres of restored habitat to the tide across the Leque Island. And even just one month after the breach, it was already a popular spot for walkers, photographers and bird watchers.
This project marks the third large estuary restoration effort in Port Susan Bay.
Two years ago, an 88-acre project was completed on the Stillaguamish Tribe’s Zis-a-ba property at the end of the Old Stilly Channel adjacent to both Leque Island and The Nature Conservancy’s Port Susan Bay preserve, where a150 acre restoration took place in 2012. So, there are now488 acres of restored estuary habitat available to the young Chinook salmon traveling down the Stillaguamish to make their way into Puget Sound and beyond that were not there a decade ago, representing a lot of progress for local partners to celebrate.
All Photos: Courtney Baxter/TNC
And yet, the sense of urgency remains to don hard hats and roll up our sleeves across the community again to ensure recovery of our iconic Puget Sound salmon before it is too late.
This project was possible due to funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Program, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Fish and Wildlife’s Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program, Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, Floodplains by Design, and state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.