After an absence of more than a decade, a trickle of salmon are finally finding their way back to Sonoma County streams, thanks to private landowners and a coalition of conservationists.
Roughly 22 million years ago, the fish we know as salmon evolved the complicated biology they needed to commute between inland freshwater streams and the open salty ocean. Thus began one of the most remarkable life cycle journeys known on the planet.
Two million years ago, on the ancient California coastline, the salmon would have found a perfect cold and clear waterway emptying into the Pacific near the mouth of today’s Russian River. Running a hundred miles back among high ridges and dense redwood forest, its widely branching network of creeks and tributaries made ideal habitat for the spawning fish and its young.
And that paleo-Russian River has been the salmon’s home ever since.
So it came as a shock in 2001 when naturalists, fishermen and the community discovered that the number of coho salmon counted returning to the Russian River, once totaling 100,000, had dwindled to only 5.
It was found that throughout the watershed, the populations had crashed, and the salmon were disappearing, stream by stream. By 2004, only 3 of 39 tributaries and creeks in the entire watershed held any coho at all.
This past December, in a quiet event out of public view, red-flushed mature coho salmon were once again found spawning in the tree-shaded upper reaches of Mill Creek west of Healdsburg, where they had been virtually absent for decades.
That small, exciting homecoming was no accident. It came after more than 10 years of study and planning, captive breeding and painstaking stream rehabilitation by a smorgasbord of local, state, and federal agencies, private groups, academic institutions, community coalitions and concerned individuals.
And the vital key and the unsung heroes of the salmon rescue, according to those involved, are some of the private landowners whose property surrounds Mill Creek. In a scene that’s playing out along hundreds of miles of streams and creeks across Sonoma County, individual landowners are proving to be the crucial link in bringing the salmon home again.
Tracking the salmon
Everyone involved with salmon rescue in Sonoma County knows Mariska Obedzinski, because it’s her job to count the salmon. A fisheries biologist, Obedzinski is the coho monitoring coordinator for UC Sea Grant. Counting, for Obedzinski and team members Nick Bauer and Zac Reinstein, involves daily checks of underwater traps during the spring, snorkeling through chains of creekbed pools during the summer, and monitoring remote sensors to spot salmon carrying tiny implanted tracking devices.
Before the coho can be upgraded from the red-line federal “endangered” classification, Obedzinski must find 10,100 salmon in the watershed for three consecutive years. This past January, the estimate was 456. That makes every single salmon spawning again in prime habitat like Mill Creek vitally important.
Challenges for the coho
Mill Creek collects water from mountains in one of the wettest spots in Sonoma County, near Venado. Then it burbles and winds for 15 miles through wooded mountain canyons and second growth redwoods, before entering Dry Creek about a mile from the Russian River, and 35 miles from the sea.
Where to see the Wildflowers
Wildflower or Wildfire Hikes at Sonoma Regional Parks in April 2018
For directions and registration information, go to: parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov/Play/Calendar
April 8, 2018 from 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM
Spring Wildflower Walks: North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park: Explore the park’s spring wildflowers and the rich biodiversity. Search for blooms beneath the majestic redwoods, along Matanzas creek, amidst beautiful oaks and throughout open meadows as we climb the north slope of Sonoma Mountain. Enjoy lunch and breathtaking views from the Bennett Valley Overlook on this 5-mile hike.
April 14, 2018 from 9:00 AM – 2:00 PM
Wildfire Ecology Hikes - Hood Mountain Regional Park: How are the parks recovering from the Sonoma County wildfires? Join a Regional Parks naturalist on 7-mile hike in Hood Mountain Regional Park.
April 14, 2018 from 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
Spring Wildflower Walks - Taylor Mountain Regional Park - Petaluma Hill Road Entrance: Enjoy surprising stories and fascinating facts about nature’s blooming treasures as we search along the trail for spring wildflowers and spectacular scenery.
April 14, 2018 from 2:00 – 4:00 PM
Spring Wildflower Walks: Creekside Wildflower Walk -Crane Creek Regional Park: Explore edible, medicinal, useful and wondrous wildflowers. Spot remarkable blooms and discover their stories on this fun and informative 3-mile walk with a knowledgeable naturalist.
April 21, 2018 from 9:00 AM – 2:00 PM
Spring Wildflower Walks: Serpentine Secrets - Tolay Lake Regional Park: Join Regional Parks and the Sonoma Land Trust to experience spring’s riches at Tolay Lake Regional Park and discover rare, diverse and abundant displays of native wildflowers. Learn about California’s serpentine soils and their important and unique relationship with native wildflower species. Enjoy amazing views of San Pablo Bay and beyond on this 6-mile, semi-strenuous hike through open, rolling grasslands. Bring a hat, sunscreen, plenty of water and a picnic lunch.
April 28, 2018 from 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
Wildfire Ecology Hike - Sonoma Valley Regional Park: How are the parks recovering from the Sonoma County wildfires? Join a Regional Parks naturalist on an easy to moderate-level 3-mile hike in Sonoma Valley Regional Park in Glen Ellen.
April 29, 2018 from 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
Spring Wildflower Walks: From Wildfire to Wildflower - Sonoma Valley Regional Park: Explore this unique botanical hotspot, observe splendid spring blooms, and discover the fascinating relationship between wildfire and wildflowers. This park was profoundly affected by the October 2017 Nuns Fire. Expect to see the park respond with an abundant and diverse display of wildflowers this spring — a beautiful reminder and charming celebration of nature’s resilience.
Wildflower and Wildfire Hikes at State Parks in Sonoma County in April 2018
Sugarloaf Ridge State Park
For directions and registration information go to: sonomaecologycenter.org/events
April 8, 2018 from 9:30 AM – 1:30 PM
Join botanist Ann Howald of California Native Plant Society‘s Milo Baker chapter to tour areas of the park that burned in the October wildfires. The walk’s emphasis is on recovery of trees and shrubs that burned, and to look for wildflowers–possibly ones that follow fires and have not been seen for decades.
April 22, 2018 from 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Join Botanist, Peter Warner, in this Earth Day Sugarloaf exploration! Fire is a powerful, rejuvenating force in California plant ecology. On this leisurely walk, with some elevation gains and losses, well observe and discuss the various effects of fire and its chemical by-products on the flora (and fauna) across several different habitat types, including grassland, oak woodland, and chaparral.
April 14, 15 and 28, 2018 from 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Join park naturalists and/or Sonoma Ecology Center staff to learn how to interpret fire landscapes at Sugarloaf that burned in the recent wildfires. Come see the land recover. We will be assessing burned trees, learning how to interpret fire-affected landscapes, and watching for special “fire follower” wildflowers. Discussion questions include: Why did this happen? What does it mean? How do we prepare for it happening again?
Jack London State Park
For directions and registration information for Jack London hikes, go to: jacklondonpark.com/jack-london-future-events.html
April 7, 2018 from 10:00 AM to 3:30 PM
Wildflowers on the East Slope Trail: It’s been a three years since the Eliot Loop Trail opened with the help of the Bay Area Ridge Trail and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District. Join us as we discover an array of wildflowers that bloom along the trail while enjoying the fantastic views! We will expect to see carpets of California Poppies and Lupines at the top and a variety of wildflowers along the Sonoma Ridge trail. Join Park naturalist John Lynch as we take a moderately paced 12 mile nature hike to explore the wildflowers and anything else we find along the way.
Earth Day Wildflower Walk and Hike
April 21, 2018 from 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM (walk) and April 22, 2018 from 10:00 AM to 1:30 (hike)
This Earth Day weekend revel in the beauty of spring with either a wildflower walk or hike. These outdoor adventures will be led by naturalist John Lynch and focus on the interconnected web of nature at the Park. Saturday discover the wildflowers along the Wolf House trail on an easy short walk or on Sunday, take an intermediate 4 to 8 mile hike, we’ll go where the wildflowers are best, on back country trails to discover a wider variety of wildflowers. With both you can expect to see Canyon Delphinium, Chinese Houses, Golden Fairy Lantern, Lupine, Popcorn Flower, Mules Ears (2 varieties) as well as the birds, reptiles and other plants that make up the eco-system of the Park. Our hikes are slow-paced so allow plenty of time, bring cameras, binoculars, poles, plenty of water, snacks and wear sturdy shoes. Be prepared for uneven ground.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here