Landowners see salmon spawn for the first time in rural Gresham

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - John Freuler points up the creek where coho salmon continued their journey. John Freuler has lived along Beaver Creek in rural Gresham for 25 years, and not once has he ever seen a salmon in the water, let alone adult cohos returning to spawn.

“We counted seven of them in the creek last Monday,” Freuler said. About 300 feet down from his property, the South Fork tributary of Beaver Creek runs through Freuler’s backyard.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - A dead salmon carcass has returned to the bottom of the food chain in the South Fork of Beaver Creek.John’s neighbor, Pete Benfit, who’s spent 12 years on the creek, was equally surprised to see the spawning fish.

“For a coho to get up this far, I was impressed,” Benfit said.

The creek runs through the intersection of Southeast Lusted and 302nd Avenue.

“From what we could tell, they were doing their business,” Benfit said.

Dark and secluded under a canopy of trees, the stream is just 2 feet deep. Benfit guesses the salmon were able to swim up the creek when the water ran high in October.

“I’m guessing this is where they hatched years ago,” he said.

Many people who live on or near Beaver Creek may not realize it’s home to Chinook, coho and steelhead, as well as rainbow trout, Lucas Nipp said.

Nipp is the project manager of the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District’s free StreamCare restoration program.

He’s been working with landowners like Freuler and Benfit who live outside the city along the Beaver Creek watershed to restore the creek’s habitat.

Beaver Creek is too warm

Two years ago, a study conducted by the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, city of Gresham and Multnomah County found the Beaver Creek waterhed’s overall stream health was “severely to moderately impaired.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Lucas Nipp has been working to restore habitat along the Beaver Creek watershed.Beaver Creek, a watershed composed of a main stem and three tributaries, starts near Dodge Park. It travels north through unincorporated rural areas before crossing the urban growth boundary, entering Troutdale and finally flowing into the Sandy River near Depot Park.

One of the stream’s largest tributaries, Kelly Creek, flows through much of eastern Gresham, including the Mount Hood Community College campus.

According to the 2011 study, the symptoms ranged from high temperatures and murky, sediment-filled water caused by erosion, to water contaminated with bacteria and pesticides as well as oil, metals and combustion by-products from vehicles.

The watershed covers 13.5 square miles of urban and rural terrain, an area with a human population of 62,000.

“It’s mostly an urban creek,” Nipp said.

A loss of habitat surrounding the creek has made it easier for pollutants from roadways and farms to enter the creek through agriculture and stormwater runoff, the study said.

Nipp said the goal of the StreamCare program is to lower the temperature of the creek and transform the landscape back to its native habitat.

“Beaver Creek’s temperatures are too warm for salmon,” he said.

His crews work to reforest areas along the creek by removing invasive species like weeds and wild blackberries and replanting native trees and shrubs. He says the idea is trees will grow up and shade the creek, providing an ideal habitat for salmon to spawn.

“Salmon love dark, cool and clear water,” Nipp said. They also like overhanging vegetation and wood drifts that form pools in the water where they can lay their eggs, he said.

More energy around the creek

Nipp said the creek is getting healthier, with several groups now invested in restoring the watershed and improving the run for salmon.

“There is a lot more energy around the creek now,” he said.

A few summers ago, Multnomah County surveyed fish in the creek and found 13 native fish species including juvenile coho and rainbow trout throughout the watershed and as high as 302nd Avenue.

In the fall of 2010, Mt. Hood Community College students conducted salmon spawning surveys in Beaver Creek between Troutdale Road and Cochran Road and found many live, adult Chinook and coho salmon.

MHCC Fisheries Instructor Todd Hanna continues to survey the fish with students.

Nipp said conservation groups like SOLVe have volunteers working to restore the lower section of the creek near the confluence of the Sandy River, while the Metro regional government is assisting with properties it owns adjacent to Mt. Hood Community College and the city of Gresham is helping to restore the Kelly Creek EAST MULNOMAH SOIL AND WATER CONSERVATION DISTRICT - Beaver Creek and its three main tributaries start in unincorporated rural areas and flow into Troutdale and eastern Gresham before reaching the Sandy River.

Stewards of the creek

More recent salmon sightings by people living and working on the creek have raised awareness and excitement within the community.

Nipp said where the creek runs through Freuler and Benfit’s property (from 302nd down to Division) is one of the most pristine habitats for salmon in the Beaver Creek watershed.

His crews cleared out wild blackberry bushes and non-native weeds near the creek and replanted hundreds of trees on their properties.

Nipp said the area is “a shining example of what we would like a healthy creek to look like.”

The Stream Care program is free to landowners as long as they sign a five-year agreement with the conservation district.

Benfit, who has been part of the program for two years, said as a homeowner, he really didn’t have to do anything.

It’s a win-win, he said.

“It improves my property and improves the habitat for the fish. Not everybody gets to own property like this,” Benfit said. “As responsible property owners, we should be good stewards of the land and the wildlife that live on it.”

Salmon complete life cycle

Nipp said the StreamCare program has allowed more people to engage with the creek and see the fish that have likely always lived there.

Freuler, who is recently retired, said “I spend half my time down here these days.”

On a tour of the place where salmon were recently discovered, Freuler pointed to a huge cedar that had blown across the creek, now only about 2 feet deep.

“The fish we saw was over on that side of the log,” he said. “Six others were seen farther up the creek.”

Freuler recalls seeing a buck and a hen — a male and female salmon — swimming next to each other, spawning in a pool of water.

Now all that’s left is a dead salmon carcass floating near the fallen log.

After two to five years in the ocean, adult salmon return to their birthplace to spawn.

After the salmon lay eggs, Nipp said, they die and their bodies return to the food chain.

“The carcass is kind of like the end prize,” Nipp said. “Life worked.”

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