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Landowners turn front yard into wildlife wetland

BPA grants $500k for levee breach on private property

COURTNEY VAUGHN - Karin Hunt walks her dogs, Mishka and Bella, along a newly created stream on her property in Clatskanie. The land was recently flooded with the breach of a levee to create a wetland for wildlife.Karin Hunt walks the muddy banks of her property in Clatskanie while her two mastiffs scout for twigs and splash around in a new stream bed.

It’s been less than two weeks since Hunt and her husband, Michael Tillson, watched heavy equipment breach a levee on their land. Hunt can already point out schools of tiny fish and osprey that have taken up residence on the 26 acres that is newfound wetland habitat.

“Eventually in the winter time it will be flooding quite a bit of the property,” Hunt said earlier this week.

Hunt and Tillson have owned their waterfront property along the Clatskanie River for more than 20 years, but on Aug. 15, they flooded their land with water from the river to make it a viable wetland habitat for fish, frogs, turtles, beavers, birds and migrating juvenile salmon.

It was a concept years in the making, but Hunt said it only took about two weeks for a portion of the undeveloped land to be reconfigured with channels and tree trunks before a private levee was breached.

COURTNEY VAUGHN - Bella, a 10-month-old mastiff puppy, dips her paws into a stream that was recently created. Strategically placed logs line the water, to create fish food and beaver habitat. “My husband and I are both really excited about it,” Hunt said. “What an opportunity. I always wanted to be able to improve the wetlands.”

The levee breach was a coordinated effort between Bonneville Power Administration, which paid for the $500,000 project, and the Columbia Soil and Water Conservation District, along with the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

BPA funds projects like these as part of ongoing efforts to mitigate the loss of salmon habitat from hydroelectric power-generating dams.

“We’re obligated to restore some of that habitat that’s been lost,” David Wilson, a spokesman with BPA, said last week. “This project achieves some of that. We are interested also in restoring some of that habitat along the Columbia River for juvenile salmon.”

Hunt and Tillson are used to sharing their property with wildlife. They’ve created nesting boxes atop pilings, observed the aftermath of beavers near a culvert and discovered a family of bats while removing old ceiling tiles.

Hunt said she watched as a mother bat clutched her babies in her wings, prompting her to later dub the property “Batwater Station.”

She and her husband have tried to leave a light footprint on the 60-acre property, which contains a main residence and a dock with an attached boat house. Hunt said creating the stream fits in with the long-term goals she’s always had for the site.

“I was thinking maybe someday I could afford $10,000 to restore the levee,” she said. “Now I understand BPA has invested $500,000.”

Jenni Dykstra, a field restoration ecologist with the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, said it’s not uncommon for agencies like the estuary partnership and BPA to work with private property owners to forge new wildlife habitat, but the Batwater Station property was a unique opportunity.

“The reason we’re doing these types of projects is that one of the limiting factors, particularly to juvenile salmon, is that they’ve lost their floodplain habitat,” Dykstra said.

“In the springtime, a lot of juvenile fish will go off into these main-stream habitats. When a lot of these levees were constructed, it shut off a lot of that habitat.”

The habitat will also benefit whitetail deer, birds and amphibians.

Most homeowners loathe the thought of an oncoming flood, but now, Hunt eagerly awaits a bigger onslaught of water.

“It’s a win for me and it’s a win for the wildlife and a win for the salmon,” Hunt said.