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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.

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.

"This is really cool, it is a public-private partnership, and it pushes conservation," said Patrick Shea, executive director of Wildlife Heritage Foundation, which manages the conservation easement. "This property will never be anything but what it is now."

Summers said he and his wife bought the 440-acre property with the intention of setting up several conservation banks along the creeks. It has taken almost three years to set up the first one in the 144-acre Devil Creek watershed.

"It is a way to do something positive for the environment, but also generate income through a private endeavor and not using public funds," Summers said.

The California Conservation Corps was hired to put in 15 log structures to create coho habitat and eventually will plant 750 more trees to shade the creek.

This week, biologists with Warm Springs Hatchery and the Sonoma County Water Agency released the three-inch, nine-month old coho salmon into the creek, placing them carefully into the nooks and crannies around rocks and logs.

"Their natural instinct is to go hide and hunker down," said biologist Rory Taylor. "These log structures create sanctuaries for them to hide in."

The coho salmon stocking program started in 2001 when scientists took 200 wild juvenile coho from Russian River tributaries to be raised in special tanks at the hatchery at Warm Springs Dam.

The captured fish were spawned, with care being given to individual DNA characteristics to prevent inbreeding.

Since 2004 they have been tagged and released into a dozen creeks in northern Sonoma County that flow into the Russian River. They can be expected to return after three years to spawn.

White said of the 160,000 fish released this year, half will survive to migrate to the ocean and 1 to 2 percent can be expected to return to spawn.

White said that this year, 20 coho have been counted at Wohler Bridge on the Russian River.

"It is the most we have seen in five years," White said. "It bodes well, every year we see more."