Whychus Creek habitat project spawns success

First returning adult steelhead spotted; more fry released

Young fish released into Whychus Creek

SISTERS, Ore. - From the truck, to the bag, to the creek and out into the world.

About 200,000 fish were released into Whychus Creek on Wednesday, part of an ongoing effort to restore the habitat to its natural state.

"It's an amazing odyssey,  if you think about it -- 3,000 or 4,000 miles these fish will travel," said one of the projects leaders, Brad Chalfant of the Deschutes Land Trust.

The fry fish released are on a new journey in a creek that's also carving a new path.

"The restoration we've seen here, on this scale, hasn't been done any place else in the country that we're aware of," Chalfant said.

The land trust, partners and volunteers came out for the annual fry release, working to bring salmon and steelhead back to the creek, and in turn, the Deschutes River.

"There's a lot of cover under there (where) they can rest and relax," said volunteer Jayme Schricker as she released some steelhead into the creek beside a log.

The lack of fish is tied to the history of the creek. Over the past 150 years, it's been manipulated by land users, eventually rerouted to a fast and narrow channel.

It was a poor habitat that Chalfant said he and others have spent nearly 20 years trying to reverse.

"What we've done is taken that straightjacket off, helped the creek come back to its historic meadow," he said.

The project to restore the creek channel finished up last year, rerouting and slowing down the flow, adding native plants and log jams to the habitat.

The efforts to restore the fish will take years.

But it's not just about the creek. Chalfant said in recent years, fish ladders on dams have become more effective and managed better, meaning the fish have better chances of getting through, and also coming back. 

 Just this month, a reward: the first discovered adult steelhead returning to Whychus Creek, after more than 40 years.

"Eventually, we hope, we'll have a completely wild run, and we can just stand back and let Mother Nature do her thing," Chalfant said.

Out of the 200,000 fish released Wednesday, experts say about 350 will come back to spawn. And for now, there's reason enough to celebrate.

"This would be a nearly dry reach right now," Chalfant said. "To see it coming back to life is truly encouraging. It's a powerful message about the future."

The restoration is a multi-million dollar project. Chalfant said it's largely funded by the Oregon Lottery, hydroelectric companies, and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

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