By BROOKE SNAVELY
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS
Wearing a backpack and wielding an electric wand, Mark Peterson resembles a Ghostbuster.
But the Crooked River Watershed Council project manager isn’t searching for ghosts.
He’s stunning fish that are stranded in remnant pools of Marks Creek in the Ochoco Mountains east of Prineville.
“We are using direct current through a backpacker shocker to stun the fish briefly. Everyone has their safety equipment on,” Peterson said. “They come in behind me and scoop those fish up as they are anesthetized. We put them into cold water aerated buckets and transport them downstream as soon as we can to keep them safe. Put them in a section we know won’t go dry. Once the restoration is complete fish can move back up into this area and use a whole new habitat that’s been restored.”
The 20-foot long, maybe three-foot deep pool of water in which he and volunteers are wading is pretty much all that remains of a 1,000-yard stretch of Marks Creek east of Prineville that’s been going dry each summer for 20 years.
Incredibly, from this and one other remnant pool, more than a thousand fish were collected.
“We have redband trout, main species in here and the species of most interest. We also have speckled dace. We have chiselmouth chubs. We have several species of sculpin and we have bridgelip suckers,” Peterson said.
This section of Marks Creek is an alluvial fan.
It’s where high spring flows come rushing down from Ochoco Mountains, scour out the sediment and deposit gravel.
“What you’ve ended up with is a giant pile of rocks with very little soil. What we are hoping to do is trap some sediment from the upcountry by putting in wood structures, by putting in other structures that will allow beavers to come in and maybe stop up the flows,” Peterson said. “Hopefully, with enough time and enough sediment build-up, this area won’t go dry anymore.”
Restoring year-round flows to a stream that’s gone dry for 20 years sounds like a pipe dream, but just a thousand yards downstream on a neighboring property, the creek has been restored and flows year-round through a lush, shaded riparian zone where fish and wildlife are thriving.
“What we’ve seen is you can take a stream channel that kind of looks like an irrigation ditch… wide, shallow, devoid of vegetation and, in a 10 year period, turn that into what you are seeing right now. Willows come back. Your alders are 20 feet high. The beavers are here. Your pool depth gets to 3 feet,” said Gerry Sanders, another Crooked River Watershed Council project manager.
I saw something on this restored section of Mark’s Creek I’d never seen before; the beavers are building their dams with rocks.
The resulting deep pools behind the beaver dams benefit everything, including ranchers and livestock.
“The meadow will hopefully stay wetted longer through the season. He’ll have better hay output and better grazing potential for working land,” Peterson said.
“A lot of our landowners are conservation-minded. They are hunters. They are anglers,” said Sanders. “I have so many landowners say ‘I want to be able to take my kids and grandkids down here and see the trout that are here,’ or ‘I’ve seen my neighbor’s place that you’ve worked on and wow, it looks great and we want that on our property.'”
About a dozen volunteers helped the Crooked River Watershed Council collect, relocate and identify the fish.
“I’ve been tallying the fish as they take them out of the tubs and identify them,” said volunteer Dennis Gallagher. “I mark down how many of each species we get as they pull them out of the tub.”
“We see spawning fish in here every spring, which is great,” Sanders said. “The majority of these fish start their lives in Ochoco Reservoir. When they reach adulthood, they will swim up here between March and May. Those fish are between 16 and 24 inches when they come up here and spawn. They’ll spawn in these reaches. The juveniles will live 1 to 2 years in the stream. That’s why this late summer flow is so critical. Then those juveniles will migrate back down to Ochoco Reservoir and they continue the life cycle again.”
The next steps in the Marks Creek restoration are to place trees and large boulders in the eroded stream bed and fill it with clean gravel.
Two existing irrigation diversions will be rebuilt with screens to keep fish from drawn being drawn into surrounding irrigated pasture.
Willows and alders will be planted along the stream and fenced to keep cattle from eating them down before they get a chance to grow.
“We have a very resilient fish population that has evolved with the dry landscape to survive harsh conditions. It’s been exacerbated by agriculture and by other practices throughout the years. We’ve seen a lot of fragmentation over the years but by doing spot restoration like this we are hoping to connect the dots and allow these fish to volitionally swim up and down to escape temperature, to make them more survivable and so they can find a better genetic diversity to continue how they’ve gotten to this place,” Peterson said.
If the restoration results downstream from this location are any indication, the future of this stretch of Marks Creek, looks wet, cool and inviting for all manner of creatures, wild and domestic.