If you restore it, they will return

Riparian restoration in northern California

a green frong on a green plant.

Since the project was completed, the response by wildlife has been tremendous. There has been an increased diversity of birds, mammals, insects and amphibians – like this small chorus frog. Credit: Becca Reeves/USFWS

By Susan Sawyer
February 10, 2021

Imagine a serene setting in a lush river valley over 300 hundred years ago. Beavers maintained swaths of wetlands, their dams creating thickets of willows and cottonwoods attracting billions of beneficial native insects. In spring, the calls of birds and frogs filled the air. Western pond turtles basked above pools on fallen logs and schools of young salmon darted below. Salamanders lurked under rocks and ring-necked snakes patrolled for bite-sized morsels. Now picture this scene completely transformed, still and quiet, devoid of most plants and wildlife.

a stream with large logs placed in it.

To slow the velocity of French Creek and prevent spawning gravels, streambank plants and soils, and juvenile fish from being washed downstream during spring runoff, trees from the landowners property were placed at strategic intervals across the water. Credit: Erich Yokel/SRWC

This is what happened in the Scott Valley of northern California when the fur trade arrived in the 1820s followed by the gold rush three decades later. The landscape was forever changed from the ridgetops down to the river bottoms. Habitats were reduced in size and complexity, which decreased species diversity. All strands of nature’s food web were affected, and many species suffered dramatic population declines.

However, thanks to recent efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Yreka Habitat Restoration branch and a willing private landowner, the landscape along a stretch of French Creek, a major tributary to the Scott River, has begun to heal. The past few years, a series of restoration projects has helped jumpstart the natural processes, putting the creek on a course of self-recovery.

Rebecca Reeves, fish and wildlife biologist in the Yreka FWO Partners Program worked with the Scott River Watershed Council to implement a unique method for completing this project.

“We used a ‘process-based’ restoration approach which means the lightest touch possible to nudge the system into a trajectory of self-recovery,” said Reeves. “This is both cost effective and more resilient to potentially unpredictable conditions than earlier methods which created specific and unchanging habitats, often benefitting only a single species.”

a small animal print in mud.

Soon after Phase 1 of the French Creek project was completed, evidence of wildlife use such as this raccoon print, began to appear. Credit: Becca Reeves/USFWS

Reeves explained that rather than design a stream channel with specifically engineered bends at evenly spaced intervals, the process uses a stream’s natural current and velocity to “let the water do the work” to create suitable instream habitats more effectively. By adding large wood in waterways, restoring healthy riparian corridors and improving the function of floodplains, rivers will naturally develop and maintain habitats that support a broad array of species.

In 2019, crews transported large pine trees with intact root wads from the landowners’ nearby uplands. These were placed in a side-channel of French Creek, creating a series of logjams. This slowed the current which allowed sediments to settle, created pockets of slow water for fish and amphibians, and helped recharge the groundwater table. Clean gravels suitable for coho spawning were placed around the logs.

The response was immediate. Coho salmon returning to this stretch of French Creek were seen within the first year after project implementation.

An adult coho salmon in French Creek at one of several large wood structures designed to create slow water and pools for spawning. The fish is fast, moving from left to right, from sun to shade in mere seconds." Credit: Becca Reeves/USFWS

“The coho came back and began using the restored side channel and new spawning gravels in higher numbers than ever before,” said Reeves. “It was totally heartwarming to see that response and know that the project was a success.”

An adult male coho salmon slowly makes his way up the creek to spawn. As is the case with all Pacific salmon, life comes full circle in fresh water when they return very near to where they began several years before as tiny fry. Video courtesy of SRWC

So successful in fact that Phase 2 has been funded and will use the same methods and techniques from before, this time on a larger stretch of the mainstem French Creek. Plans are for work to begin this summer during low flows.

a shot of a shallow stream with rocks in it

Phase 2 of the French Creek restoration project has been funded, with construction planned for summer of 2021 when flows are lowest. Work will involve much of the processes used in Phase 1 – adding large wood structures and woody debris. Photo courtesy of SRWC

Charnna Gilmore, executive director of the Watershed Council said that although the initial project focused on coho salmon habitat, restoration that promotes ecosystem processes often benefits a much broader suite of species.

“Our process-based approach has demonstrated a positive effect on many species including macroinvertebrates, amphibians and birds, along with thousands of juvenile coho salmon,” said Gilmore. “Additionally, our work will help support the native beaver population and in return, once they inhabit a project site, the transformation is incredible.”

Restore the health of a habitat, and the sights and sounds of nature will return.




Story Photo

Susan Sawyer

About the writer...

Susan Sawyer is the Klamath Basin public affairs officer, covering the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Klamath Falls and Yreka Fish and Wildlife Offices. She was raised in the California desert gaining a deep appreciation of the outdoors on family vacations to the Pacific coast, Sierras and Redwood forests.

She has worked in Arizona, Nevada, Montana, Idaho and now Oregon, where she spends her free time landscaping for wildlife, continuing to learn from and about nature and spoiling her animals.

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