Sumas River GRP

Table of Contents


Site Description

This section provides a description of the physical features, hydrology, climate, and winds in the Sumas River GRP planning area, and an oil spill risk assessment in Section 2.6. The planning area is approximately 53 square miles, and resides within the boundaries of Whatcom County. It covers the main stem of the portion of the Sumas River that falls in the United States, beginning northwest of Deming along Washington 9 and continuing north along the highway to the international border. It includes the eastern portion of the City of Everson, the entirety of the City of Nooksack, its western neighbor, and the whole of the city of Sumas. It also includes the drainage area of Johnson Creek, which follows Highway 9 south to Everson, and its tributary Squaw Creek, which passes west along Washington 546 almost to Lynden. Portions of WRIA 1 (Nooksack) fall within this planning area. The Sumas River GRP is bordered by the Nooksack River GRP to the south and west, and the country of Canada to the north.


Physical Features

The Sumas GRP planning area covers approximately 53 square miles in the northern part of Whatcom County. The majority of the area is relatively flat lowlands surrounding the Sumas River and its major tributary Johnson Creek. At least eight other smaller creeks contribute to the flow of either Johnson Creek or the Sumas itself, which flows north into Canada near the town of Sumas. The predominant use of this area is for agriculture. Whatcom County is home to around 1400 farms which produce various types of fruit and berries as well as corn and hay to feed dairy cows. Sixty-five percent of the red raspberries grown in the United States are from Whatcom County. The county is also a center for milk production, producing 246 million dollars of milk annually from 44,000 cows (AWB 2015). The eastern side of the planning area consists of the western slopes of Sumas Mountain.  Dale Creek, Swift Creek, Collins Creek and Breckenridge Creek all originate near the top of Sumas Mountain and flow into the Sumas River. This portion of the area is heavily forested with the predominant land use being logging.

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The southwest side of this planning area consists of the upper reaches of the Sumas River watershed. The Sumas and the Nooksack Rivers come within a half mile of each other in places and used to combine during flood events in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Highway 9 and the BNSF rail tracks now separate the surface drainage between the two rivers in all but extreme floods.  From this location, Sumas river waters flow north into the Fraser River and then west to Vancouver, British Columbia. The Nooksack River flows in a large arc northwest and then south and empties into Bellingham Bay.

Although this entire planning area was the traditional homeland of the Nooksack Indian Tribe, no tribal reservations exist in the planning area. The Nooksack Indian Tribal Center and reservation is in the town of Deming (Nooksack 2012). Many of the towns in this area, including Everson, originally began as Nooksack Indian Tribe settlements, which were then either relocated or destroyed as settlers capitalized on the area’s location as a through-route to Canada (Moles 2014). In addition to the Nooksack Indian Tribe, nine other tribes have potential interests in the area due to their usual and accustomed fishing places.

The planning area is still a major transportation corridor to and from Canada. Seven and a half miles of the Kinder Morgan Canada Trans Mountain Pipeline pass through the area bringing Canadian crude oil to the refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties. Highway 9 parallels the BNSF rail track going north and south from Canada at Sumas. The other major highways in the area generally go east – west, including Highways 544, 546, and 547.

Swift Creek, a tributary of the Sumas River, carries naturally occurring asbestos in its water and sediments. A landslide on Sumas Mountain carved out a section of serpentine rock, which is a source of the chrysotile type of asbestos. The landslide is directly in the drainage area of Swift Creek, which means particles of the serpentine are picked up and carried downstream in the water column. The heavier, larger particles drop out of the water column higher in the system, while some smaller particles drop out into sediment as Swift Creek descends to the valley floor and joins the Sumas River. In Swift Creek, testing identified 2%-4% asbestos in the riverbed sediment. After floodwaters recede, or when water levels in the creek drop, visible white layers and deposits are left on creek banks and floodplains. These white deposits can be up to 43% asbestos. The Sumas River carries the same asbestos in its water and sediment, from the Swift Creek confluence near South Pass Road (River Mile 27), to the Canadian border and beyond.

The asbestos in the sediment is considered a low risk to human health while it remains mixed with mud or water, but once it dries and becomes airborne as dust, it could be hazardous. Airborne exposure to asbestos has been linked to lung cancer, mesothelioma and other respiratory diseases. In the Sumas area there have been no spikes of these diseases in the local population, but the risks are being studied by state, federal and county agencies. The exact amount of asbestos exposure that can cause health problems is unknown, and many symptoms do not present for decades (EPA 2017).

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The Sumas River begins in the foothills of Sumas Mountain, in north-central Whatcom County. Its tributaries drain from the western slopes as it flows generally north, paralleling Highway 9 and BNSF tracks until it passes through the city of Nooksack. Here, the Sumas, railroad and highway turn northeast as they head towards Canada. As the Sumas wends its way along the valley floor to the border, it is fed by a number of tributary streams, including Bone Creek, Breckenridge Creek, Collins Creek, Dale Creek, Johnson Creek, Kinney Creek, Saar Creek, Squaw Creek, and Swift Creek. Its major tributary in the planning area is Johnson Creek, which feeds into the Sumas from the west, about one mile south of the border.

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Once in Canada, the Sumas gains additional tributaries and strength over its remaining 11 miles until it empties into the Chilliwack Canal, which shortly thereafter joins the Fraser River. The Fraser empties into the Salish Sea just south of Vancouver, British Columbia.

As with most of Western Washington, the rainy season is considered to begin in October and end in May or June. The non-glacially fed areas, such as the creeks in the lower valley, experience low summer flows during the dry season.

The planning area fully resides within the boundaries of Water Resource Inventory Area Nooksack (WRIA 1).

Nooksack (WRIA 1): The Nooksack watershed comprises the western portion of Whatcom County, as well as small portions of Skagit County and British Columbia, Canada. It is bounded by Bellingham Bay and the Strait of Georgia on the west and its east side includes portions of the Cascade Mountain range, including Mt. Baker. This watershed has a mix of urban, agricultural, rural land uses. The watershed consists of the Nooksack River, which originates in the Cascade Mountains, and its numerous tributaries. It also includes the Sumas River (tributary to the Fraser River), and coastal drainages including the Lummi River, and Dakota, California, Terrell, Squalicum, Whatcom, Padden, and Chuckanut Creeks. The Nooksack River is a source of drinking water for the city of Bellingham, and several other cities in Whatcom County (WA Dept. of Ecology 2012).

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Climate and Winds

The temperatures in western Whatcom County remain mild year round. Clearbrook, a few miles west of Sumas on Johnson Creek, averages 16” of total snowfall, 46” of total precipitation, and highs of 75 to lows of 30 (WRCC 2016). Winds at Bellingham airport, 16 miles southwest of the planning area, come from the south and average between 6 and 9 mph (WRCC 2006).

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Upstream of the planning area, the Cascade Mountains experience extreme weather. The Glacier Ranger Station averages 45” of annual snowfall, 61” of precipitation, and highs of 75 to lows of 25 (WRCC 2000). Just east of that station, the Mount Baker Ski Area holds the US record for annual snowfall, with an accumulation of 1,140 inches (95 feet) of snow during the 1998-1999 ski season (NOAA 1999).

Winter often means the chance of severe storms. In the past, blizzards, ice storms, and windstorms have caused major damage and flooding throughout western Whatcom County. These storms are most likely to occur from November to February, although they may hit as early as October and as late as March. Historic storms included wind gusts up to 104 mph, wind-chills of 70 below zero, and lowland snowdrifts 25 feet high (Whatcom County 2015).

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Tides and Currents

There are no tidally influenced areas within the planning area. The overall river current is controlled by the natural slope of the river from the foothills and input from tributary creeks (especially during heavy instances of precipitation). In general the water flows faster from December to April, during the rainy season, and slowest in August and September during the dry season.


Risk Assessment

The Sumas River is plentiful in natural, cultural, and economic resources, all at risk of injury from oil spills. Potential risks to these resources include pipelines, road systems, rail transportation and facilities, and other oil spill risks.

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Oil Types: Both refined petroleum products and crude oil are transported in bulk within this planning area. Crude oil and refined products contain a mix of hydrocarbons with varying properties; different types of crude oil and refined products will behave differently when spilled.

Bitumen from the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, is heavy, almost asphalt-like, until it is mixed with lighter oil products known as diluents to create diluted bitumen. Once mixed, the diluted bitumen will initially float on water after being spilled. Environmental conditions, such as the density of the receiving waters and sediment load of the receiving waters, will affect how long diluted bitumen floats. As the light diluents evaporate, the remaining heavy constituents may sink into the water column (NASEM 2016). There are specific response actions recommended for non-floating oils, detailed in the Non-Floating Oil Spill Response Tool in the Northwest Area Contingency Plan (NWACP), Section 9412.

Pipelines: The Trans Mountain Pipeline runs through the Sumas River area, and is operated by Kinder Morgan Canada. It carries crude oil products from Abbotsford, British Columbia, for delivery to four refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties in Washington State. The system capacity is approximately 180,000 barrels (7.5 million gallons) per day.

Road Systems: Vehicle traffic on roadways pose an oil spill risk in areas where they run adjacent to the shorelines, or cross over lakes, rivers, creeks, and ditches, that drain into the Sumas River. Several smaller roads run parallel to the river, including Washington Highway 9. There are no highway bridges that cross the Sumas River in the planning area. However, there are several bridges where Highway 9 crosses a tributary, as well as crossings of smaller roads over the Sumas. A vehicle spill onto one of these bridges or roadways can cause fuel or oil to flow from hardened surfaces into the Sumas River or its tributaries. Commercial trucks can contain hundreds to thousands of gallons of fuel and oil, especially fully loaded tank trucks, and may carry almost any kind of cargo, including hazardous waste or other materials that might injure sensitive resources if spilled. Smaller vehicle accidents pose a risk as well, a risk commensurate to the volume of fuel and oil they carry.

Rail Transportation and Facilities: Rail companies transport oil via manifest trains in this area. Manifest trains include: up to four locomotives, a mix of non-oil merchandise cars, and one or more 714-barrel (29,998 gallon) capacity USDOT-approved tank cars carrying refined oil products, such as diesel, lubrication oil, or gasoline. These trains may include emptied tank cars, each with residual quantities of up to 1,800 gallons of crude oil or petroleum products. Every train locomotive typically holds a few hundred gallons of engine lubrication oil, plus saddle tanks that each have an approximate capacity of 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Manifest trains may also transport biological oils and non-petroleum chemicals. BNSF owns the commercial rail track in this planning area, although other rail companies may operate trains on BNSF tracks. The BNSF Sumas Subdivision runs parallel to the river throughout the planning area. Another spur connects downtown Lynden to Sumas, Washington on the Canadian border (WA Dept. of Ecology 2015).[2]

Other Spill Risks: Other potential oil spill risks in the area include fuel storage areas (including waste oil storage), road run-off during rain events, on-shore or near shore activities where heavy equipment is being operated or stored, and the migration of spilled oil through soil on lands adjacent to the river or its tributary streams.

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Resources at Risk

This section provides a summary of natural, cultural, and economic resources at risk in the planning area, including those resources at risk from oils with the potential to sink or submerge. It provides general information on habitat, fish, and wildlife resources, and locations in the area where sensitive natural resource concerns have been identified. It offers a summary of cultural resources that include fundamental procedures for the discovery of cultural artifacts and human skeletal remains. General information about flight restrictions, wildlife deterrence, and oiled wildlife can be found near the end of this section. A list of economic resources in the area is provided in the appendix.

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This section is purposely broad in scope and should not be considered comprehensive. Some of the sensitive resources described in this section cannot be addressed in Response Strategies and Priorities because it is not possible to conduct effective response activities in these locations. Additional information from private organizations or federal, state, tribal, and local government agencies should also be sought during spills.

This material is presented with enough detail to give general information about the area during the first phase of a spill response. During an actual incident, more information about resources at risk will be available from the Environmental Unit in the Planning Section.

Note: specific resource concerns related to areas that already have designated protection strategies may be found in the “Resources at Risk” column of the matrix describing the individual strategies.

The information provided in this section can be used in:

  • Assisting the Environmental Unit (EU) and Operations in developing ad hoc response strategies.
  • Providing resource-at-risk “context” to responders, clean-up workers, and others during the initial phase of a spill response in the GRP area.
  • Briefing responders and incident command staff that may be unfamiliar with sensitive resource concerns in the GRP area.
  • Providing background information for personnel involved in media presentations and public outreach during a spill incident.
  • Providing information on benthic and water column species or cultural resources present to assist in planning for oils with the potential to sink or submerge.

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Natural Resources at Risk – Summary

This area contains a wide variety of aquatic, riparian, and upland habitats. These habitats support many of Washington’s anadromous salmonid species as well as a complex diversity of other wildlife including mammals, birds, and amphibians. Due to their life histories and/or behaviors, some of these species are unlikely to become directly oiled during a spill incident but may be disturbed by other response operations such as cleanup and reconnaissance. Some of the bird species are resident during the year, but many others seasonally migrate through the area.

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Several the species found in this area have been classified under the Federal Endangered Species Act or by the Washington State Fish and Wildlife commission.

Classification types are:

  • Federal Endangered (FE)
  • Federal Threatened (FT)
  • Federal Candidate (FC)
  • State Endangered (SE)
  • State Threatened (ST)
  • State Sensitive (SS)

Federal and State listed species that may occur within this area include:


  • common loon [SS]
  • marbled murrelet [FT/SE]
  • sandhill crane [SE]
  • streaked horned lark [FT/SE]
  • yellow-billed cuckoo [FT/SE]


  • None expected to be present.


  • Bull trout [FT]


  • Oregon spotted frog [FT/SE]

Critical habitats:

These are the specific areas, occupied by an endangered or threatened species at the time it was listed, that contain the physical or biological features that are essential to the conservation of that species – and that may need special management or protection. Critical habitat may also include areas that were not occupied by the species at the time of listing but are essential to its conservation.

The following species have federally designated critical habitats within this area:

  • Oregon spotted frog

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General Resource Concerns


  • The river and streams throughout this region provide spawning and rearing habitat for several salmonid species. The associated riparian scrub and woodlands play a crucial role in supporting a large diversity and abundance of songbird species as breeding, migrating, and overwintering habitat.
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  • The backwaters and off- channel areas associated with the river provide feeding and resting areas for waterfowl and herons and are rearing areas for juvenile fish.
  • Wetlands in this region are associated with the main stem of the Sumas River, its tributaries, and numerous lowland lakes. All wetland types support a diverse array of bird, insect and fish and wildlife species.
  • Restoration sites areas where significant efforts have been expended to restore natural functions in a degraded habitat.
  • Subsurface Habitats – freshwater. Shallow subsurface habitats occur in the mainstem and tributaries found in this region.
    • Fine sediments (mud/silt/sand) – Associated with slow/still water flows. May have aquatic vegetation present. Animals associated with these areas may be salmonid and resident fishes; birds (dabbling ducks); semi-aquatic mammals (muskrat, beaver, etc.); shellfish (freshwater clams); amphibians and reptiles (frogs, newts, salamanders, turtles, etc.); insects (caddis flies, mayflies, dragonflies, and stoneflies). Many other animals also utilize these areas for foraging.
    • Coarse sediments (gravel/cobble) – Associated with moderate water flow. May have aquatic vegetation present. Animals associated with these areas may be salmonid and resident fishes; birds (dippers, harlequin ducks); semi-aquatic mammals (muskrat, beaver, etc.); shellfish (pearlshell mussels, crayfish); amphibians and reptiles (tailed frogs, torrent salamanders; insects (caddis flies, stoneflies). Many other animals also utilize these areas for foraging.


  • Salmonid species are present throughout this region (including the listed bull trout) with spawning occurring in the Sumas River and its tributaries. Juvenile salmonids use these streams for feeding, rearing, and as migration corridors.
  • In addition to salmonids, numerous resident species of freshwater fish exist in the Sumas River basin. These species all provide important contributions to stream ecology.


  • Waterfowl concentrations of various species may be found throughout the region in lowland rivers and streams, lakes and ponds, wetlands, and agricultural fields near water bodies. Concentrations especially prevalent from fall through spring.
  • Sensitive nesting species in the region include bald eagles, ducks (including cavity-nesting), and great blue herons.
  • Mammals common to the region include deer, elk, and various semi-aquatic species such as muskrat, beaver, river otter, etc. throughout the basin. In general, this group is dependent on riverine areas, ponds, tributaries, and riparian forests for den sites and foraging areas.
  • Resident and migratory songbirds heavily utilize riparian habitats year-round and are susceptible to response activities in riparian vegetation, as well as oiling or oil ingestion if riparian vegetation and shorelines become contaminated.
  • Amphibians (including Oregon spotted frog) may be present in the undisturbed shallow lakes and emergent wetlands of the area.

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Specific Geographic Areas of Concern – Overview

  1. Judson Lake: Freshwater lake and wetland habitat. Wintering waterfowl concentration area for a variety of species including dabbling and diving ducks; snow and Canada geese; trumpeter swans; grebes; and cormorants.
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  1. Saar Creek restoration site: Riparian re-vegetation project.
  2. Pangborn Lake and associated wetlands: Freshwater pond and forested shrub wetland habitat. Coho, steelhead, bull and Dolly Varden trout. Great blue herons. Wintering waterfowl concentration area for a variety of species including dabbling and diving ducks; snow and Canada geese; grebes; and cormorants.
  3. Paatstel Creek restoration site: Riparian re-vegetation project.
  4. Wetlands and farm fields between Paatstel Creek and Kamm Ditch: Freshwater forested shrub wetland habitat. Used by sandhill cranes as a staging area for their spring migration. Also supports chum, Chinook, and coho salmon as well as bull, Dolly Varden, cutthroat and steelhead trout.
  5. Farm field along lower Kamm Creek: Freshwater wetland habitat. Trumpeter swan night roost. Also supports chum, Chinook, and coho salmon as well as bull, Dolly Varden, cutthroat and steelhead trout. Note: this location is technically within the Nooksack GRP area but bird presence may be relevant to both areas.
  6. Johnson Creek: Freshwater wetland. Trumpeter swans. Supports Chinook and coho salmon as well as bull, Dolly Varden, cutthroat and steelhead trout.
  7. Various wetlands along upper Sumas River (between S. Pass and Massey Roads): Freshwater wetland habitat. General wildlife habitat and concentration area for great blue herons. Oregon spotted frog critical habitat.
  8. Wetlands along Breckenridge and Kinney Creeks (near pipeline crossing): Freshwater forested/shrub wetland habitat. Bald eagles and cavity nesting ducks present. Also supports chum, Chinook, and Coho salmon as well as bull, Dolly Varden, cutthroat and steelhead trout.

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Specific Geographic Areas of Concern – Maps and Descriptions

Figure 1: Specific geographic areas of concern in the Sumas River GRP.

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Cultural Resources at Risk – Summary

Culturally significant resources are present within the planning area. Information regarding the type and location of cultural resources is maintained by the Washington Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation (WDAHP). This sensitive information is made available to the Washington Department of Ecology for oil spill preparedness and response planning. The Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (THPOs) or Cultural Resource Departments of local tribes (see Table 6‑1) may also be able to provide information on cultural resources at risk in the area and should be contacted, along with WDAHP, through normal trustee notification processes when significant oil spills, or smaller spills above reportable thresholds, occur in the area.

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During a spill response, after the Unified Command is established, information related to specific archeological concerns will be coordinated through the Environmental Unit. In order to ensure that tactical response strategies do not inadvertently harm culturally sensitive sites, WDAHP should be consulted before disturbing any soil or sediment during a response action, including submerged soils or sediments. WDAHP and/or the Tribal governments may assign a person, or provide a list of professional archeologists that can be contracted, to monitor response activities and cleanup operations for the protection of cultural resources at risk. Due to the sensitive nature of such information, details regarding the location and type of cultural resources present are not included in this document.

Table 6‑1: SUMR-GRP Cultural Resource Contacts

Contact Phone Email
Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (360) 586-3080
Lummi Nation (360) 312-2257,

(360) 961-7752
Muckleshoot Tribe (253) 876-3272
Nooksack Indian Tribe (360) 306-5759

(360) 305-9126
Samish Nation (360) 293-6404 x126
Sauk-Suiattle Tribe (360) 436-0347
Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians (360) 652-3687 x14
Swinomish Indian Tribal Community (360) 466-7352
The Suquamish Tribe (360) 394-8529
Tulalip Tribes (425) 239-0182
Upper Skagit Tribe (360) 854-7009

Discovery of Human Skeletal Remains

Any human remains, burial sites, or burial-related materials that are discovered during a spill response must be treated with respect at all times (photographing human remains is prohibited to all except the appropriate authorities). Refer to National Historic Preservation Act Compliance Guidelines (NWACP Section 9403) during an emergency response.

Procedures for the Discovery of Cultural Resources

If any person monitoring work activities or involved in spill response believes that they have encountered cultural resources, all workers must stop immediately and notify the Unified Command and Cultural Resource Specialist. The area of work stoppage must be adequate to provide for the security, protection, and integrity of the material or artifact(s) discovered.

Prehistoric Cultural Resources (May include, but are not limited to, any of the following items):

  • Lithic debitage (stone chips and other tool-making byproducts)
  • Flaked or ground stone tools
  • Exotic rock, minerals, or quarries
  • Concentrations of organically stained sediments, charcoal, or ash
  • Fire-modified rock
  • Rock alignments or rock structures
  • Bone (burned, modified, or in association with other bone, artifacts, or features)
  • Shell or shell fragments
  • Petroglyphs and pictographs
  • Fish weirs, fish traps, and prehistoric watercraft
  • Culturally modified trees
  • Physical locations or features (traditional cultural properties)
  • Submerged villages sites or artifacts

Historic cultural material (May include any of the following items over 50 years old):

  • Bottles, or other glass
  • Cans
  • Ceramics
  • Milled wood, brick, concrete, metal, or other building material
  • Trash dumps
  • Homesteads, building remains
  • Logging, mining, or railroad features
  • Piers, wharves, docks, bridges, dams, or shipwrecks
  • Shipwrecks or other submerged historical objects

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Economic Resources at Risk – Summary

Socio-economic sensitive resources are facilities or locations that rely on a body of water to be economically viable. Because of their location, they could be severely impacted if an oil spill were to occur. Economically sensitive resources are separated into three categories: critical infrastructure, water dependent commercial areas, and water dependent recreation areas. The appendix provides a list of economic resources for this GRP area.

General Information

Flight Restriction Zones: The Environmental Unit (Planning Section) may recommend Flight Restriction Zones to minimize disturbance or injury to wildlife during an oil spill. Pilots/operators can decrease the risk of aircraft/bird collisions, prevent the accidental driving of wildlife into oiled areas, and minimize abandonment of nests by keeping a safe distance and altitude from these identified sensitive areas.

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The Air Operations Branch (Operations Section) will manage all aircraft operations related to a response and will coordinate the establishment of any Flight Restriction Zones as appropriate. Environmental Unit staff will work with the Air Operations Branch Director to resolve any conflicts that arise between flight activities and sensitive resources.

In addition to restrictions associated with wildlife, Tribal authorities may also request notification when overflights are likely to affect culturally sensitive areas within reservations. See Oil Spill Best Management Practices (NWACP Section 9301) for more information on the use of aircraft and helicopters in open water and shoreline responses.

Wildlife Deterrence: The Wildlife Deterrence Unit within the Wildlife Branch (Operations Section) manages wildlife deterrence operations. These are actions intended to minimize injuries to wildlife by keeping animals away from the oil and cleanup operations. Deterrence activities may include using acoustic or visual deterrent devices, boats, aircraft or other tools. The Wildlife Branch works with state and federal agencies, and the Environmental Unit (Planning Section), to develop deterrence plans as appropriate.

For more information see the Northwest Wildlife Response Plan (NWACP Section 9310) and Northwest Area Wildlife Deterrence Resources (NWACP Section 9311).

Oiled Wildlife: Capturing oiled wildlife may be hazardous to both personnel and the affected animals. Incident personnel should not try to approach or capture oiled wildlife but should report any observations of oiled wildlife to the Wildlife Branch (Operations Section).

For more information see the Northwest Wildlife Response Plan (NWACP Section 9310).

Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness Areas: There are no federally designated wilderness areas in this GRP region.

Aquatic Invasive Species: The waters of this region may contain aquatic invasive species (AIS) – species of plants and/or animals that are not native to an area and that can be harmful to an area’s ecosystem. If so, preventative actions may be required to prevent the spread of these species as a result of spill response activities and the Environmental Unit is able to recommend operational techniques and strategies to assist with this issue.

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