A history and a hopeful future for Bear Creek

Flowing along Interstate 5 looking brown and sluggish in the heat of summer, Bear Creek doesn't look like a stream with fish. But native fish are there: young steelhead, lamprey, suckers, dace, sculpin, and cutthroat trout. And possibly even chinook and coho salmon.

Bear Creek Watershed Exploration Month is an opportunity to tell the story of the creek through notes from old Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife monthly reports.

In October 1961, an entry referred to thousands of dead and dying goldfish in Bear Creek. I don't know what is more disturbing — the fact that thousands of fish died, or that Bear Creek was growing thousands of goldfish in the first place.

Seven years later, the reports noted an SOU study found very high levels of phosphate, a nutrient that spurs excessive plant growth, in Bear Creek below Ashland. The entry concluded by stating this might explain the lush vegetation that chokes Bear Creek in summer.

In March 1973, Reeder Reservoir in Ashland was flushed and turbidity in Bear Creek was high for one week. A survey in August 1974 to check the flushing's effects found that Bear Creek was choked with decomposed granite sediment up to 10 inches deep between Ashland and the Jackson Diversion. Sedimentation like this can prevent fish from successfully spawning and can stop food production.

The low point for Bear Creek and its fish may have been the early 1990s. The creek suffered from drought, poor ocean conditions, and low numbers of fish. A friend of mine participated in a habitat survey on Bear Creek during this time. His response when asked about this survey was, "yuck!"

In July 1991, no salmon or steelhead were found in Bear Creek downstream of a point near Phoenix at roughly river mile 14. Non-native redside shiners and black crappie dominated the lower 14 miles of the creek.

However, as a testament to a stream's ability to rebound — with a little help from nature and nurture — Bear Creek produced a surprising number of fish between 2001 and 2005. During these years, ODFW and agency partners surveyed juvenile fish heading downstream to sea near Bear Creek's confluence with the Rogue River.

In one year of the survey, an estimated 300,000 juvenile fall chinook were produced, while another year saw more than 6,000 juvenile Pacific lamprey. On average, an estimated 10,000-20,000 steelhead smolts were produced each year of the survey.

Fast forward to 2011, a good water year.

An ODFW crew surveyed just upstream of the Kirtland Road Bridge at about river mile 1.0. Just like the 1991 survey, the crew found non-native redside shiners in lower Bear Creek. Unlike the old survey, the crew also found native speckled dace and juvenile steelhead. With the poorest water quality farthest downstream, it is likely steelhead and other native fish are rearing in all 27 miles of Bear Creek this summer. This is exciting news for those who care about our fish.

Fish are present in tributaries of Bear Creek as well. Salmon or steelhead have been found in Willow, Jackson, Dean, Griffin, Mingus, Elk, Lone Pine, Lazy, Larson, Crooked, Gore, Coleman, Anderson, Payne, Kenutchen, Wagner, Meyer, Butler, Wrights, Ashland, Kitchen, Gaerky, Walker, Clay, Hamilton, Neil, and Tolman creeks.

Unless a stream on the valley floor is blocked by poorly placed culverts, dams or other barriers, fish will be present at least seasonally. Living in fish country, we can practice good stewardship when we understand how critical these streams are for fish survival.

Slowly but surely, conditions are improving for Bear Creek and its fish. Good things have happened since 1990, and restoration work continues.

The truest test of progress will come the next time we have a drought period combined with poor ocean conditions. But with good stewardship, we will pass along a much healthier creek to future generations and a creek that will contribute to thriving communities in the valley.

If you'd like to get involved in Bear Creek habitat restoration work, check the watershed council website at www.bearcreek-watershed.org or email the coordinator at coordinator@bearcreek-watershed.org. You can also look for projects coordinated through ODFW's Salmon Trout Enhancement Program (STEP).

Dan VanDyke is Rogue District fish biologist in the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Central Point office, 541-826-8774.

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