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New approach to saving coho salmon

  • Frances Hourigan of the Sonoma County Water Agency plants some coho under the shelter of a rock along East Austin Creek.

Five thousand young coho salmon were released into Devil Creek in remote northwest Sonoma County this week as part of a decades-long program to save the endangered fish.

"Since 1960, the population has declined by 90 percent north of the Golden Gate," said Maura Moody of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "They are functionally extinct . . . We are comparing them to the condors."

Devil Creek, which is adjacent to the rugged Austin Creek Recreation Area northwest of Guerneville, represents the nation's first conservation bank for coho salmon. That means the Kenwood couple that owns the property can sell conservation credits to developers whose projects could impact coho salmon habitat.

Coho Salmon Release In Healdsburg

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Pete Grachawka, who with his wife, Nancy Summers, owns the land north of Guerneville, said they initially set out to restore the creek habitat, but the conservation bank model gave them an opportunity to offset the cost of doing so.

Devil Creek is in a deep canyon hemmed in by Douglas fir, white alder, coast live oak, California bay, Ponderosa pine and madrone that throw long shadows across the creek.

The property has been logged twice and once had a thriving magnesite mine served by a narrow-gauge railroad.

There are no homes, vineyards or trash, just a long and winding road that fords East Austin Creek several times and where a prudent motorist will carry a chainsaw.

"It is as untouched as you will find in Sonoma County," said Ben White, a biologist who manages the Warm Springs Hatchery coho program. "It has a lot going for it."

The environmental approach is the same as 500 other conservation banks set up throughout the nation that are used to mitigate the development impacts on animals, plants and habitat such as tiger salamanders, Sebastopol Meadowfoam or vernal pools.

The property owners are granted conservation easements that prohibit development and in turn can sell the mitigation credits on the open market.


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