Tuesday, March 17, 2009
(03-17) 04:00 PDT Mount Shasta, Siskiyou County --
The cold, nutrient-rich waters of Big Springs Creek once were so full of coho salmon during spawning season that a former ranch owner said he was kept awake at night by the noise of splashing fish.
The coho's fertile history in the creek, now only a distant memory, is why the Nature Conservancy paid $14.2 million for the 4,136-acre Shasta Big Springs Ranch, including the entire 2.2-mile length of the creek.
The group's purchase of the lush valley in the shadow of snow-capped Mount Shasta, which will be announced today, is part of an ambitious effort to protect and restore what might be the most important coho spawning ground in the western United States.
"My goal is to be kept awake at night, not by the knowledge that the salmon are dying, but because they are spawning again," said Amy Hoss, the project manager for the Nature Conservancy's Klamath River Project.
The sale, which closed March 6, is being hailed by biologists as a crucial step in the ongoing effort to restore salmon in the Shasta River and ultimately the entire Klamath River system.
The land is covered with springs from which cold, mineral-rich water burbles up through underground lava tubes. Water collects in the creek and flows down into the Shasta River, which eventually meets the Klamath.
Just below the headwaters at Big Springs Lake, the creek once produced as much as half the salmon in the Klamath River system, which once was the third-largest source of salmon in the lower 48 states behind the Columbia and Sacramento rivers.
Then the fish went away. This winter only about 30 coho returned to spawn in Big Springs Creek, Hoss said. Coho now make up about 1 percent of their historic population on the North Coast.
So few spawning chinook salmon have been returning to the Sacramento River and its tributaries that ocean fishing for salmon was prohibited in California and Oregon last year and is almost certain to be banned again this year.
Coho, which are more sensitive to water temperature and quality than other salmonid species, were listed as endangered in California in 2005 under the Endangered Species Act.
In addition, fisheries analysts in 2007-08 reported a 73 percent decline in coho returning to the creeks and tributaries along California's coast compared to the previous spawning season.
The issues at Big Springs Creek must be looked at in the context of the wider collapse, but more immediate problems on the ranch are making life harder on the fish, said Henry Little, director of the Klamath River Project.
"As you can see, it is denuded of vegetation," Little said as he approached the creek Monday.
The banks of the creek were little more than a muddy wallow pocked with the hoof prints of cows. Both sides were lined with fresh piles of manure, no doubt containing the digested remnants of the riparian plants that once protected juvenile fish.
Cattle had been grazing in the spring-fed wetlands since 1850. Ellis Louie, a descendant of the first homesteader, used to tell people that as a child he was awakened at night by the sound of thousands of thrashing salmon.
Conservationists had been trying to get hold of the land for 30 years, but it was only in the last year and a half that biologists noticed a deadly plume of warm water flowing down from the ranch.
Cattle had tramped the banks so much that the creek spread out, making it shallow and slow-moving. The summer heat warmed the water, and there was no vegetation left to shade it from the blazing sun.
That's when the conservancy stepped up efforts to persuade the last owner, Irene Busk, to sell. Besides the ranch, the conservancy purchased a conservation easement on 407 acres where Busk will continue her ranching operation.
The purchase, which was made with private funds, also will protect 3 miles of salmon and steelhead habitat along the upper Shasta River.
Little said the first task is to remove cows from the creek. He said cattle will be kept off all sensitive areas and fenced into grazing areas.
The conservancy hopes to restore the native plants that historically grew along the waterway.
In addition to supporting coho salmon, the restoration work is expected to provide habitat for other struggling species, including chinook salmon, steelhead trout, Pacific and Klamath River lamprey, Western pond turtles, greater sandhill cranes, bank swallows, neo-tropical migratory birds and bald eagles.
"Restoring Big Springs Creek as spawning and rearing habitat for coho salmon is the best single action that can be taken to bring wild coho back from the brink of extinction in the Klamath Basin," said Peter Moyle, a nationally known UC Davis professor of conservation biology.
Moyle recently authored a study warning that 20 of the 31 species of California native salmon, steelhead and trout will face extinction by the end of the century unless something is done to provide adequate freshwater and habitat.
Little said a successful restoration program on Big Springs Creek could serve as a model for similar programs all along the Klamath River system, where, if conservationists get their way, four dams will be removed by 2020, freeing salmon migration for the first time in a century.
"This is the largest run of coho in the Klamath system, so if you can restore the coho here, it would be the founding population for the rest of the system," Little said "Hopefully we'll be able to build both a track record and an applicable model for the restoration of much of the West."
Reviving a species
Peak: The 2.2-mile-long Big Springs Creek once produced as much as half the salmon in the Klamath River, which was the third-largest source of salmon in the continental United States.
Decline: Dams, pollution and global warming cut the number of coho in California by 73 percent in 2007-08 from the previous year. Only 30 coho returned to the creek this winter.
Restoration: The Nature Conservancy, which purchased land along the creek, plans to keep grazing cattle away, allow native plants to thrive and cool temperatures in the creek.