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A milelong section of Neil Creek in the historic Dunn Ranch southeast of Ashland will undergo habitat improvements to help protect wild coho in a project overseen by The Freshwater Trust. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

The 20,000-tree solution

ASHLAND — After more than 150 years of being part of the problem for wild salmon survival in the upper Bear Creek Basin, the historic Dunn Ranch along Neil Creek is about to become part of the solution.

The thick stands of blackberries that choked off native plants have been mowed away, and they're being replaced by native trees to cloak the creek and improve habitat. Fences now will keep grazing cows from drinking, silting and defecating in about a mile of Neil Creek, separating wild coho from domestic cattle for the first time at this 270-acre homestead.

With solar-powered water troughs planned for the cattle and complex wood structures soon creating new homes for wild coho, the Dunn Ranch will join the 21st century as some of the best cold-water salmon habitat in the upper Bear Creek Basin.

"It's certainly now going to become an example of what a real high-quality ranch can look like in (salmon) habitat," says Eugene Wier of The Freshwater Trust, a nonprofit restoration group overseeing the $1.5 million Dunn Ranch project. "We're setting the stage for years of good habitat."

The project also is one snapshot in the growing collage of stream improvements necessary to keep the Talent Irrigation District and others that draw Bear Creek Basin water in business.

The habitat work and other changes are required under a 2012 federal agreement between NOAA-Fisheries and the Bureau of Reclamation for the irrigation districts to continue operation without illegally harming wild coho.

Along with three already completed projects, the Dunn Ranch improvements "should put us into the end zone" for the 18 acres of riparian upgrades required in the agreement, says Douglas DeFlitch, the bureau's regional manager in Bend. The wood structures planned for coho next year also will help reach the minimum in-stream habitat requirement due by the end of 2017, DeFlitch says.

Along with other projects in the past two years and those planned for the next two, "I think we're well on our way to being successful" in keeping irrigation districts flowing in wild salmon country, he says.

Should the bureau fail to meet its requirements in the agreement, it could lose federal permits needed to operate Hyatt, Howard Prairie and Emigrant reservoirs for TID and the Medford and Rogue River Valley irrigation districts.

No permits, no TID, MID or RRVIG diversions through the bureau's Bear Creek system.

"We know this has the potential to get us in a bind," says TID Manager Jim Pendleton, who keeps his 3,000 patrons up to speed regularly on the bureau projects and their importance. "We're spending our resources and time hoping everybody does things right the first time." 

The Dunn Ranch project is partly the product of a more-than-willing landowner who bought the ranch four years ago without any clue that his family could play a role in wild coho recovery there.

Wild coho in Southern Oregon and Northern California were listed in 1994 as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, which requires that federal activities and operations not kill nor jeopardize wild coho and their habitats. The bureau also had to consult with NOAA-Fisheries on how to meet the requirements.

The NOAA-Fisheries 2012 agreement focuses on improving Bear Creek Basin conditions during the 14 months young coho remain in freshwater before they head to sea. That has led to minimum-flow levels required in upper Bear Creek as well as Emigrant Creek and a string of habitat-improvement projects either to cool creek waters or add deep-pool rearing space in largely channelized creeks.

Well before the bureau hired The Freshwater Trust to coordinate its habitat work, Wier regularly drove down Highway 66 eyeing the Dunn Ranch as an excellent place for a major rehab project that gets cattle out of the creek there forever.

He pitched the concept to owner Doug Healy, who had conducted similar work on property he owned in New Zealand to help trout there more than a decade ago.

"When they approached us it was like, 'Yeah, we get it,'" Healy says.

Healy, who lives in Southern California and leases out the ranch, now has an agreement in which the trust does the improvements and then babysits the project for at least five years to ensure its survival while the ranch moves forward with modern amenities.

"We're really excited about the opportunity they've provided us," Healy says. "We provide the habitat, they provide the capital and we enjoy a benefit."

Plant Oregon last week planted the first 6,500 of the 20,000 native plants and shrubs that will line 14 acres of Neil Creek on both sides of Highway 66 when finished next year.

Next year crews will systematically place logs and stumps in streams so water can carve out twice as many rearing pools now there for fish, Wier says.

Neil Creek is a refuge for Bear Creek's infant salmon during hot and summer months because its cold water flows off north-facing slopes and through largely undeveloped land, he says. 

However, the bureau is funding this project so Neil Creek can operate as a replacement nursery for wild coho during winter and spring when flows are artificially low in nearby Emigrant Creek and upper Bear Creek during the reservoirs' filling season, Wier says.

Wier says he and Healy also are looking at improving the ranch's historic, hand-dug Dunn Ditch to boost water-delivery efficiency that could lead to more water remaining in Neil Creek during the irrigation system.

Keeping the cattle forever out of this creek stretch and bolstering the water-filtering aspects of a healthy riparian zone should reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria and sediment loads in lower Neil Creek and portions of Bear Creek, Wier says.

The plantings are designed over time to turn the ranch's section of Neil Creek into a maple forest with natural wood falling in to create more complex habitat for future generations of wild coho here.

"It's now one of the last cold-water tributaries in Bear Creek," Wier says. "This is a really high-valued system.

"We're seeding the site for 300 years of succession," Wier says. 

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

 

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