One Creek at a Time, Oregon Is Restoring Salmon Habitat : Environment: The American Fisheries Society has identified 213 West Coast runs of salmon, steelhead and sea run cutthroat trout that are in danger of extinction.


Walking along the South Fork of Little Butte Creek, fish biologist Jerry Vogt didn’t have to look far to find evidence of how man has made it tough for salmon to survive.

Mounds of gravel along the creek bank showed where bulldozers plowed out the channel after the devastating flood of 1964, turning the Rogue River tributary into more of a gutter than a spawning bed for coho salmon.

“People like things neat and tidy and clean. Fish and wildlife like things messy,” said Vogt, who works for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in White City.


One creek at a time, Vogt and others are messing things up.

They are under the gun.

Three runs of Pacific salmon already have been protected under the Endangered Species Act and more are on the way. Environmentalists petitioned to protect coho salmon runs; they plan to file a petition to protect winter steelhead soon.

The American Fisheries Society has identified 213 West Coast runs of salmon, steelhead and sea run cutthroat trout that are in danger of extinction.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife blames the coho’s predicament on a lack of food in the ocean, where salmon grow to be adults. The department has warned commercial salmon fishermen they probably won’t be able to troll for coho next summer.

“Unless there’s a last-minute miracle, it’s harder and harder to find any optimism,” said Bernie Bohn, harvest manager for the department.

Historically, government agencies have dealt with declining salmon runs by cutting back on fishing and boosting production from hatcheries.

“That’s just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Assn., which represents commercial fishermen. “The habitat issue is the real issue. I’m real concerned that we are not pro-active on habitat protection.”


“The salmon is the preeminent indicator species, because it starts at the top of the watershed, goes all through the watershed, into the estuaries and out to the ocean and returns again,” Spain said.

“As the salmon go down, it’s a clear warning bell that we have destroyed most of the integrity of our watersheds.”

Salmon spawn in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California. Until now, most of the effort to boost declining runs has focused on the series of dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, which are blamed for killing millions of young fish each year as they migrate. The Northwest’s first endangered species listing of a salmon run was the Snake River sockeye.

More attention is being paid now to restoring habitat that has been damaged by heavy logging, flood control, cattle grazing and urban development.

The Clinton Administration’s proposal for lifting the injunctions that have stopped logging in northern spotted owl habitat includes $72 million for assessing, protecting and restoring salmon habitat in national forests.

Recognizing that federal lands alone won’t support the restoration of salmon runs and other wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is encouraging big timber companies to develop habitat conservation plans to avoid new endangered species listings.


“The list gets longer and longer all the time and the resources we have to deal with it don’t keep up with it,” said Mollie Beattie, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Pacific Rivers Council has estimated that it will cost $350 million to restore salmon habitat just on federal lands on the west side of the Cascade Range.

There is no big fix. It depends on lots of little fixes, such as the one on the South Fork of Little Butte Creek, which runs out of the Rogue River National Forest in the Cascade Range and connects with its North Fork before emptying into the Rogue River five miles north of Medford.

On the edge of the national forest, Vogt and a group of volunteers re-created a little side channel, where juvenile coho can escape the fast water of the creek, hide from predators and find food.

The bulldozers that dug out the creek bed after the 1964 flood robbed the channel of its water. So Vogt and the volunteers cut in a culvert and dug a meandering ditch through the flood plain. It’s full of logs and root wads and alder sticks clipped off by beavers.

The remnants of the coho run that survive will spawn this winter in the creek. Vogt hopes to see the side channel full of young fish this spring.


“This creek is still in good enough shape that we can still get some benefit,” said Vogt. “If we can work our way downstream, we can extend the range of usable habitat in the stream.”