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Trapping survey shows Larson Creek can still be viable habitat

Outdoors

When Chuck Fustish dug into a wire trap sunken in lower Larson Creek on Nov. 10, he found a little fish representative of all that is good, and bad, about southeast Medford's largest urban stream.

The trap contained one chinook salmon, about four inches long, likely the offspring of late-spawning fall chinook and proof that this largely overlooked and under-appreciated stream can still be useful to the Rogue River basin's anadromous fish.

But this salmon, however, likely will never return as a 40-pound behemoth four years later. At just 4 inches long, it was either under-nourished from living in a creek too hot for salmon or perhaps even stuck behind a Larson Creek diversion.

It missed its chance for heading to sea and ever reaching its potential.

It was probably the runt of the litter, says Fustish, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Something was compromised in his life cycle.

— That, too, can be said about Larson Creek, where Fustish's winter trapping survey reveals how this small urban stream can continue to aid Rogue fish runs if Medford's growing number of terrestrial creatures stop beating the hell out of it.

Fustish's trap set this winter in Larson Creek captured 78 wild salmon and steelhead, both adults and juveniles, that are part of a cache of fish that mostly use the creek when no one's looking.

These were large adult fish that sneaked upstream to spawn in winter or simply smaller ones taking refuge behind the Black Oak Shopping Center when winter storms leave Bear Creek too rough even for salmon.

Even a wild coho salmon juvenile, protected as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, wiggled into Larson Creek to wait out a winter storm in the slow waters near St. Mary's School.

In all, surveys show that despite its culverts and slashed riparian zones and flash flooding amid the growing concrete poured in the name of progress, Larson Creek can still be a salmon magnet.

ODFW biologists estimate that Larson Creek still holds almost four miles of steelhead and trout spawning habitat used briefly during winter freshets and largely invisible. It holds 1.4 miles of spawning habitat for large chinook which, in the fall, are longer than much of Larson Creek is wide.

It also is home to one-third of a mile of spawning grounds for wild coho, who can't make it to the Quail Point Golf Course but can still make it to Ellendale Avenue.

These fish go upstream between people's houses and people are walking by not noticing what's going on in there, says Craig Harper, water resources program manager for the Rogue Valley Council of Governments. It's amazing how many fish are in Larson Creek.

It's also amazing that Fustish's survey shows that nearby residents still use Larson Creek as a dumping ground for even the strangest of cast-offs.

The trap captured two Ruby minnows, an exotic fish sold locally sold as aquarium pets.

The same stretch of water where people dump their unwanted house cats also gets aquarium also-rans.

It's worth more than that, Fustish says. That creek is something that deserves everything we can do to preserve it.

We can improve riparian habitat, get a little less concrete out there so rain can absorb into the ground instead of all going down the creek, Fustish says.

Already, some of that is under way.

At St. Mary's School, home to one of Larson Creek's better reaches, Chris Johnson is planning with Harper and Fustish ways to make the creek there even better.

Johnson, who heads St. Mary's middle school and is its director of operations, is spearheading an effort to improve the creek's habitat and using the work as a way to teach ecology and stream stewardship to St. Mary's students.

So far, they have pulled some of the blackberries that have choked the stream. They also have applied for grants and intend next fall to do a mass streamside planting of native bushes and grasses to fortify the banks and shade the water from Southern Oregon's unforgiving summer sun.

It makes it a better teaching space and more valuable to wildlife as well, Johnson says. Our kids will do the dirty work and make it happen.

Fustish also hopes to make more use out of Larson Creek's potential as an instructional stream as well.

He and others in the ODFW's Central Point office are telling anyone who will listen that salmon and steelhead are, at times, in Larson Creek whether they realize it or not.

They don't know, and when they don't know, they don't care, Fustish says. Hopefully, they will if they hear about it.

The ODFW and St. Mary's School are hosting a public meeting at 7 p.m. Monday to tell Larson Creek's story.

With the public's growing consciousness about the needs of wild salmon and a cadre of environmental laws overseeing development, building and living amid the Northwest's salmon streams is destined to become one of the top fish stories of the 21st century.

Those who have adopted Larson Creek hope it's a good story, not a bad one.

You've got to give credit to urban streams, not just Larson Creek, Harper says.

Trapping survey shows Larson Creek can still be viable habitat"mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Volunteer Phil Hager, left, and ODFW biologist Chuck Fustish check a fish trap set to catch a sample of fish living in southeast Medford?s Larson Creek last December.