In the last 42 years, only 2 intact salmon redds were found in the Lower South Fork McKenzie River in Blue River, Oregon. Historically, the river hosted one of the healthiest Pacific salmon runs in the Northwest, but after the construction of Cougar Dam in the early 1960s, their numbers plummeted. The dam deepened the river and removed important gravel and deadfall that salmon require to successfully spawn.

New diversions from Phase 2 improvements create prime spawning grounds for Pacific salmon. Photo: Matteo Morretti for Trout Unlimited

But this year, biologists and citizen scientists found hundreds of them, each marked by small pink flags on the side of the river. The increase comes after a $2 million dollar restoration project was undertaken by U.S. Forest Service and McKenzie Watershed Council. The project’s aim was to restore the river’s precious shallow gravel and silt bars that the salmon need to spawn each Fall.

To do this they let “the water do the work.” The initial phase of the project involved sourcing new stone to add to the river and felling of many nearby trees to create the needed structure. According to Flylords writer Matteo Morretti, who visited the site during its Phase 0 and Phase 1 stages, “Through aggressive efforts to add woody debris, river substrate, and sediment, Stage Zero seeks to speed up processes that would normally be left for years to develop.”

With over 240 redds counted this year, it won’t be long before this river is once again filled with salmon during their annual runs, even teasing the opportunity for future recreational salmon fishing. In the meantime, salmon aren’t the only wildlife taking advantage of the newfound habitat. Trout are returning to the section of the river in numbers as well.

But there is still plenty of work ahead of the workers and volunteers helping restore the stream, and they are looking to secure another $5 million to extend the restoration and improvements up and downstream!

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