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Coho salmon return to Mendocino County watershed

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Amid the state’s historic drought, scores of coho salmon have made their way back to a pair of coastal waterways in Mendocino County, marking a rare return for the endangered species that had been absent from the streams for at least five decades, according to the Mendocino Redwood Co., which owns most of the watershed where the fish were found.

In the past several weeks, biologists with the timber company have found 60 to 70 juvenile coho salmon within an estimated 8-mile stretch of Greenwood Creek and an upper tributary, Valenti Gulch, that is accessible to fish, said John Andersen, director of forest policy for Mendocino Redwood Co. Another 2 miles of the creek’s uppermost region is blocked by a 35-foot waterfall.

State Fish and Wildlife biologists earlier in the year spotted one adult female salmon, three adult carcasses and a spawning nest, or redd, in Greenwood Creek, officials said. Each redd contains about 2,500 eggs.

“We’re tickled pink,” Andersen said. He said there likely are more fish than those recorded because not all the pools in the stream were surveyed.

The discovery comes amid an otherwise grim time for California salmon, and particularly for coho, the most imperiled of the state’s once prolific salmon and steelhead trout runs. The four-year drought, combined with increased overall demands on North Coast streams — from agriculture, marijuana growers, rural residents, cities and others — have led to conditions in some waterways where fish are in danger of being stranded in ever-dwindling pools, according to wildlife officials.

This month, the state took unprecedented action to protect coho in four Sonoma County streams, imposing strict water use restrictions on the owners of about 3,750 parcels. State officials said the emergency regulations were prompted by flows that were about 90 percent below those measured in 2010. In May and June this year, about 2,800 juvenile coho were rescued from the four Sonoma County streams, officials said.

Despite the dire conditions, coho populations have been increasing on the Mendocino Coast during most of the drought. While there wasn’t much rain last year, it occurred at the right time for coho waiting to get upriver to spawn in November and December, said Shaun Thompson, a Mendocino Coast-based environmental scientist with Fish and Wildlife.

“It was a pretty good salmon run,” he said.

Estimates of coho populations in Mendocino Coast streams have increased from 898 in 2010 to 3,365 in 2013, Thompson said.

The return of coho in Greenwood Creek and its tributary appears to show that Mendocino Redwood Co.’s efforts to improve fish habitat are paying off, Andersen said. It also bolsters the company’s case that it can log its extensive North Coast forests while simultaneously restoring habitat decimated by a century of poor timber harvest practices that included massive clear-cuts.

Greenwood Creek, which empties into the ocean near the town of Elk, also was severely impacted by a dam built at its mouth in 1890. It’s unclear when the dam was removed.

Mendocino Redwood Co. owns about 9,500 acres, or 60 percent, of the estimated 15,833-square-mile Greenwood Creek watershed. Altogether, the Ukiah-based timber firm and its Humboldt County sister company own about 440,000 acres of forestland in the two counties, purchased in 1998 and 2008, respectively.

From the beginning, the timber company has worked to remove barriers to healthy fish populations, such as small and poorly maintained culverts, and roads that cause sediment to wash into streams, Andersen said. The company also ensures that streams are cool enough for fish by maintaining trees that provide shade and installing temperature gauges, he said.

Now that coho have been found in Greenwood Creek, it will become eligible for government grants to conduct further habitat restoration, such as placing woody debris in streams to provide the fish with cover from predators. Such projects typically are conducted with partner agencies and groups, including the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Trout and Trout Unlimited, company officials said.

Over time, the groups’ collective efforts have kept an estimated 17,000 cubic yards of sediment from running into Greenwood Creek, officials said.

Mendocino Redwood Co.’s timber operations have come under some scrutiny, most recently prompting criticism from residents worried about its use of herbicides to kill wide swaths of unwanted oak trees.

But Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Harris said the firm’s management style is a vast improvement over older, heavier-handed logging methods and that it is making good progress toward making forests more hospitable to wildlife.

“MRC has done a lot of instream restoration,” he said.

Fish restoration efforts are underway throughout the state, and coho numbers have improved in many streams. It’s more rare to have them reappear in streams where they’ve been absent for decades, Thompson said.

But the reappearance of coho in a pocket of Mendocino County, especially in small numbers, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve made a comeback, Harris said. He noted cases where fish numbers have rebounded in some streams, only to again plummet.

Mendocino County has about 200 streams that historically were home to coho salmon. Thompson guessed fewer than half of those currently contain the fish. But he also noted that current stream surveys sample only a portion of each stream, so there could be fish present that are missed.

Harris said he’ll be confident that the fish have truly recovered when he starts hearing reports that they once more are so numerous a person could walk across rivers on their backs — a popular tale about the spawning runs once seen on the North Coast.

“That’s when I’ll know our job is done,” Harris said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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