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Rescue mission

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Biologist Ryan Battleson bounds down the slippery bedrock of the East Fork of Evans Creek on a rescue mission for which steelhead anglers four years from now may thank him.

Armed with a net and a plastic bucket, Battleson stops at a small, isolated pool where infant wild steelhead and even threatened coho salmon are likely trapped, unable to fin either upstream to cooler confines or downstream to better flows.

“We have tons of these isolated pools that probably won’t make it to the end of the week,” says Battleson, from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There’s steelhead in there, and they’re not getting out of here on their own.”

Battleson runs the light-mesh net through the pool and, sure enough, he captures a handful of steelhead not quite two inches long.

“Let’s get them out of here and get them somewhere where they can make it through the summer,” he says.

Salvaging infant wild steelhead and salmon from Southern Oregon creeks that dry up in late summer from irrigation withdrawals is nothing new for Battleson and others within the agency charged with protecting Oregon’s wild fauna.

But this year’s drought has exacerbated this dilemma to a point where Battleson is looking for help in finding isolated pockets of wild fish that need a hand in survival this year.

He’s hoping rural residents who live along normally perennial Rogue River Basin streams to help identify pools of steelhead blocked from their necessary migrations for survival and report them.

That will allow Battleson or a group of trained and deputized volunteers to rescue them and place them in more suitable habitats to ride out the late-summer maladies.

Don’t go on rescue missions on your own. It’s illegal to move live fish without a permit, and doing so with threatened wild coho could run you afoul of the federal Endangered Species Act.

So it’s best to call 541-826-8774 to report isolated pools with juvenile steelhead or salmon. And better yet, also call if your land is home to a spring-fed creek pool that could be the recipient of salvaged steelhead.

After all, it doesn’t help to rescue a tiny steelhead without a good place to put it.

This seemingly annual dilemma plays out in Rogue tributaries and represents a distinct bottleneck in wild salmon and steelhead life cycles.

While dam removals in the Rogue and even in Evans Creek garner the headlines as projects that remove impediments to migrating salmon and steelhead, the constant summer fight for consistent flow in streams like the East Fork of Evans Creek are at critical times ground zero in the fight for wild steelhead survival.

Steelhead move far up spawning tributaries like this one often unnoticed, jetting up during winter freshets and disappearing before waters drop and clear enough for detection.

Both wild summer and winter steelhead spawn in Rogue tributaries from December into March, often high up in streams like East Evans Creek, leaving behind egg nests called redds.

The eggs hatch in late winter, then the fry are instantly part of a dart-to-live trauma that sends them up and down waters like East Evans Creek for as much as two years before they head to the ocean as smolts.

Many streams like East Evans Creek have more water rights for landowners than summer water in the stream, so they have a tendency to stop flowing in places. That’s worse during droughts that reduce water flows into these key streams, allowing section to dry up earlier than normal.

That can leave thousands of juvenile steelhead isolated, despite their inherent knowledge to either swim downstream, or upstream, toward cooler water as mid-stream pools become isolated dead zones.

“Steelhead are not stupid critters,” Battleson says. “They know when they see a cue to get out. That’s a good thing.”

But sometimes they get stuck, with no way out.

Battleson continues up East Evans Creek, pausing at small pools to run a small seine through them. One pool the size of a picnic table yields no steelhead.

“If you’re not finding them in here, that’s good,” Battleson says. “Maybe it means they’ve already gotten out.”

But the pessimist in Battleson resets that notion.

The egrets and the raccoons could have already got to them,” he says.

Seining various pools leads to a collection of native scuplin and non-native shiners, a former baitfish illegally introduced into the Rogue Basin in the 1950s that can overpower native steelhead for food and space in these tiny pools.

“You’ll see pools where there’s 10, 20 or 30 shiners for every juvenile steelhead,” Battleson says. “They really beat up the habitat.”

Ideally, Battleson won’t have to battle mosquitoes or cull through shiners to salvage stranded native fish. If enough water remains in these creeks, juvenile steelhead can move up and down the creek in search of cool-water summer environs on their own.

“Habitat connectivity is one of the biggest things we’re looking at as a department,” he says.

In this particular rescue, Battleson nets a half-dozen juvenile steelhead that spend 20 minutes in a plastic bucket complete with a portable aerator to keep them alive.

He drives a short distance upstream to a private landowner’s holding on East Evans Creek that includes a spring-fed pool. It’s an ideal refuge for stranded steelhead to live out their first difficult summer in this hellish summer of drought.

“Go ahead, you’re back with your buddies,” Battleson says as the juvenile steelhead swim out of his bucket. “Good luck.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune A juvenile steelhead is rescued from low warm water at East Fork Evans Creek on Tuesday.