Naturalist Jim Hutchins and property owner Ruby Edwards survey Big Butte Creek in efforts to gauge the tributary’s potential for spring chinook spawning habitat. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

The Survey Says

BUTTE FALLS — A stretch of Big Butte Creek running through Ruby Edwards' 120-acre ranch has features by which Edwards can set her calendar.

In July, it's the stream orchids lining the bank. And come October, its spring chinook salmon recreating their mating dance in the gravely creek.

"The first of October. I can almost count on it," says Edwards, 80, and owner of the 120-acre ranch for almost 40 years. "The salmon will be here. I've counted as many as nine at one time, right here."

What passed as a fall musing by Edwards now is turning into a piece of science as state fisheries biologists are taking their first steps in a new effort to boost the Rogue River basin's sagging wild spring chinook returns.

Edwards' piece of the creek, and two others, will be surveyed regularly this fall to help biologists gauge whether the roughly 16 miles of Big Butte Creek between Crowfoot Road and the city of Butte Falls can produce more wild spring chinook — with a little help.

Oregon's freshly adopted Rogue River Spring Chinook Management Plan calls for finding ways to boost habitat for wild spring chinook — the one Rogue salmon species most harmed by the placement and operation of Lost Creek dam.

Big Butte Creek is the only Rogue tributary regularly used by wild spring chinook and its flows are not influenced by the dam. That makes it the only real candidate for habitat work.

"We're exploring right now, looking for opportunities," says Dan VanDyke, the Rogue District fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We need to explore that habitat."

Medford naturalist Jim Hutchins will be walking the often steep and rugged chunks of the creek this fall, counting spawning chinook, dead chinook and any salmon egg-nests, called redds, that he uncovers.

He'll also look to map roughly the areas in the largely bedrock creek where pockets of good gravel exist for spawning fish — should they get there.

When surveying Edwards' waters off Cobleigh Road, she joins him. Wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes, Edwards walks up the cold creek next to the wader-wearing Hutchins, each steadied by a Douglas fir limb used as a wading staff.

Wading in thigh-deep water past what Edwards calls her "thinking rocks" — "I come sit here to think, and I'd see the salmon," she says — the duo spook a pair of large chinook that dart to safety toward a run of gravel where they likely will spawn any day now.

"They have about 20 yards of gravel to spawn there," says Hutchins, 71, who teaches outdoor stewardship at schools throughout southwest Oregon. "Hopefully, on these surveys, we'll find a few more pairs like this."

Historically, wild spring chinook have been known anecdotally to move up to Butte Falls at times, VanDyke says. But the ODFW's historical stream surveys checked only the one-mile stretch from the creek's mouth at the Rogue upstream to Crowfoot Falls, a natural barrier.

ODFW surveys show that stretch of creek is known to produce about 5 percent of the wild spring chinook in the Rogue Basin.

Knowing what's upstream of Crowfoot Falls, and where salmon use it now, can help gauge whether reducing the passage barrier at Crowfoot Falls or seeking higher fall in-stream flows would make a difference.

The survey will be difficult because much of the creek flows through steep canyons and ravines, with only pockets of gravely water suitable for salmon spawning.

"It's definitely not classic chinook habitat," says Tom Satterthwaite, an ODFW fisheries scientist working on Rogue spring chinook issues for more than 30 years. "The question is are chinook using those pockets of gravel?"

That's what Hutchins is looking for. And to get there, he carries a saw to hack through brush, if need be.

"This place is wild," Hutchins says. "It's got hornets, poison oak. Everything."

But that's likely all the better, Hutchins says.

"The ruggedness is probably one of the reason the fish have survived here," he says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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