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Salmon advocates want to protect 'a miracle'

Nestled as far upstream as North Mountain Park in Ashland, tiny salmon eggs and newly hatched fish struggle to survive each year in Bear Creek.

Adult salmon travel more than 130 miles from the ocean to instinctively spawn in Bear Creek, despite the swift-moving waters and other threats to their offspring's survival, according to Molly Kreuzman, co-director of Medford's Coyote Trails Nature Center.

"People don't realize salmon come so far up Bear Creek," Kreuzman said of the developed waterway running alongside I-5 through the Rogue Valley, from near Emigrant Lake to Central Point, where the creek meets the Rogue River.

Kreuzman said spawning salmon would prefer to lay their eggs in slower-moving areas of the creek or in side channels, but development near Bear Creek has cut off most side channels and restricted the waterway to a single, fast-moving channel.

In an effort to re-establish at least one channel for the fish, Kreuzman and Coyote Trails have joined with the Bear Creek Watershed Council to study the feasibility of recreating a 1,200-foot channel that once existed off Bear Creek.

The channel could provide a more suitable rearing ground for salmon and other fish, and help increase the survival rate of the threatened species.

"Salmon make it 137 miles from the ocean. If there's anything we can do for them, we should," said Frances Oyung, coordinator for the Bear Creek Watershed Council.

Oyung and Coyote Trails have managed to secure a $24,000 feasibility grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and are halfway through a three-year study to determine whether re-digging the side channel is possible. The team working on the project includes landscape architects, engineers, a biologist and a hydrologist.

If it turns out to be feasible, the channel would be created by excavating an area that was disconnected from Bear Creek in the 1960s. The site is on property where Coyote Trails sits, in U.S. Cellular Community Park. Excavating and reshaping the land would allow for the water to flow through the channel again.

Kreuzman said because salmon are considered a threatened species, people should work hard to help them survive.

"To see the salmon make it up here and see how far they've come, it's really a miracle," she said. "It's really an amazing experience, and we're so fortunate that they are still here."

Because the side channel would be dug adjacent to Coyote Trails, people would be able to monitor its success and see the salmon, according to Frances Oyung, coordinator for the Bear Creek Watershed Council.

Oyung said Coyote Trails is an ideal place for a project like this, as most other areas along Bear Creek are too developed.

"We can measure the results, and it will be a place open to the public," she said.

If the project is successful, it could serve as a model for reconnecting side channels along other parts of Bear Creek.

If the project is feasible, the group will seek additional funding to build the side channel. They are unsure of a potential time frame for its completion.

"There is a great need in Bear Creek to improve the fish habitat," said Kreuzman. "If we allow the fish to die off and don't take care of them — it would be a shame."

Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at teresa.ristow@gmail.com.

Frances Oyung walks along Bear Creek near Coyote Trails Nature Center in Medford on Wednesday. Oyung is working with the center and others on a feasibility study to create a new channel off Bear Creek that would potentially create new spawning habitat for salmon. - Jamie Lusch