Fish ladder would open 17 miles of habitat

LAKE CREEK — For more than a century of summers and falls, the seasonal Walcott Dam has stood like an impenetrable fortress to fall chinook salmon making their way deep into the Little Butte Creek system.

The large stop-logs that divert water for irrigators have provided no way for fall chinook to pass and reach prime spawning habitat, particularly the gravel-rich South Fork.

"There's a lot of fish in Little Butte Creek, but good luck finding more than a handful above Walcott," says Pete Samarin, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District office.

That could change as early as next fall under plans by the agency to make the Rogue River Basin's third-worst remaining impediment to wild salmon more fish-friendly.

A newly designed fish ladder is envisioned that would provide access for wild salmon, primarily fall chinook, to 17 miles of potential spawning habitat.

The ladder also will provide easier downstream passage for juvenile salmon and steelhead, as well as provide upstream passage for juveniles trying to escape to cool headwaters when Little Butte Creek runs low and hot in summers.

But the big winner here will be fall chinook, the all-wild run of large Rogue salmon targeted by Oregon's commercial ocean fleet as well as sport anglers in the Rogue and at sea.

"It's a boon for chinook," Samarin says. "The South Fork has low gradient and some good gravel. Those fish are going to tear it up.

"The goal is to get Little Butte wide open to chinook," Samarin says.

But those chinook won't make it without the financial help of the Oregon Restoration and Enhancement Program board when it meets Friday in Salem to mete out portions of fishing license surcharges for proposed projects benefiting fish and anglers.

The agency has a $93,243 grant pending before the board toward the $268,043 project. A regional review by a program panel earlier recommended funding.

It is one of nine projects totaling $716,000 of R&E Program money requests on the board's plate Friday. With more than $850,000 in its war chest, the board has enough money to fund all of them should it choose, program coordinator Kevin Herkamp says.

"It's been identified as a priority so it at least has a decent shot" at funding, Herkamp says.

Another $100,000 for the Walcott Dam project is earmarked through an Oregon Department of Transportation Culvert Repair Mitigation Funds account, while the remaining money is covered in the form of in-kind work in ODFW's Fish Screen Shop in White City.

If fully funded, construction is slated for next summer, and it includes blasting of bedrock and the creation of a concrete jump pool and weir ladders.

Not only is Walcott Dam deemed the third-highest priority for opening more Rogue Basin waters for wild salmon, it is also in the top 25 statewide, according to ODFW's Statewide Barrier Priority List.

The dam is on the B-Bar-K-Cascade Ranch off Lakecreek Loop Road and not accessible to the public.

Fall chinook recovery has been a success story in the Rogue Basin since early 1980s, when summer flows augmented by Applegate Reservoir releases to the Applegate River and Lost Creek Lake releases to the mainstem Rogue opened more spawning habitat and alleviated warm temperatures that regularly led to chinook-killing disease outbreaks.

Projects on major upper Rogue tributaries such as Little Butte Creek have improved habitat and access to spawning grounds so creeks like this can tap more of their potential for growing wild salmon.

Little Butte Creek is also home to wild spring chinook and threatened wild coho salmon, summer and winter steelhead, cutthroat trout, Pacific lamprey and Klamath smallscale suckers.

"I think this will do wonders for all species in Little Butte Creek, but it will specifically help fall chinook the most," Samarin says.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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