Have they been “playing God” at Whychus Creek near Sisters, Oregon? I have witnessed the destruction of habitat before but never the restoration on such a huge scale. I went to the Whychus Canyon Preserve recently with the Deschutes Land Trust on a tour of the project. They and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, with the support of several other agencies and nonprofits, started to do field work on rehabilitating six miles of the creek in 2016. It is an enormous undertaking and it’s expected to take around seven years to complete.
Whychus Creek is a 41-mile long waterway that has its origin in the Cascade Mountains. It flows through the city of Sisters, forested, and agricultural lands to eventually enter the Deschutes River. Historically, it provided prime habitat for spawning, rearing, and migration of redband trout, spring Chinook, and summer steelhead.
The taming of a creek
The creek was tamed into a one-course waterway when it was straightened in the 1960’s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The braided channel was pushed to the side of the canyon and enclosed within berms. Though it appears “natural” at first glance, it does not contain the diverse plant and animal life that was once there.
Prior to starting the work, several things took place. The land was purchased or easements with landowners were established. Dams along parts of Whychus Creek were removed. Screening and passage projects were put into place where fish passage had been difficult.
Restoring creek habitat
So how do you recreate a creek? Here are a few of the steps.
- Determine the historical route of the creek with the use of LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology.
- Use the “muscle” of heavy equipment to lay out the route and install things such as large trees, root balls, and boulders into the channels.
- Plant native plants to help populate and stabilize the site.
- Reintroduce fish into the watershed.
- Monitor water levels and flow.
- Study reestablishment of the riparian zone and related wildlife.
The habitat changes will improve the site for wildlife. Whychus Creek will provide better habitat for all of the life stages of native fish species. The streamside riparian habitats, wet meadows, and forested area will host a wide diversity of other wildlife. They are in the process of planting 60,000 native plants from Clearwater Native Plant Nursery in the project area.
We were only there for a little while but we saw signs of wildlife in the area. Deer tracks crisscrossed the newly created mud flats along the creek. Townsend solitaires sang their melodic songs nearby as they defended crops of juniper cones. Golden eagles drifted overhead on thermals.
Looking towards the future
I can picture this area filled with the songs of warblers next spring. Beavers might start doing some of their own engineering work on this creek. We have helped the wildlife reclaim what was once theirs.
I look forward to future visits to this site and appreciated seeing what people working together can do. It is amazing! Special thanks to Amanda Egertson, Deschutes Land Trust Stewardship Director, and Mathias Perle, Upper Deschutes Watershed Council Project Manager, for their help on the October tour. Thanks also to Brad Nye, Deschutes Land Trust’s Conservation Director, for leading the Salmon Walk later in the month.