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Ranchers help improve health of Sprague River
Channels restored with help from several agencies

Freelance Writer, Capital Press Sept 8, 2006

CHILOQUIN, Ore. - Little by little, the Sprague River is getting the tender loving care it needs.

Stream banks degraded by grazing cattle, showing only bare dirt for years, are sprouting needed vegetation. It's being done with help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and some willing ranchers who live on adjoining land.

"We have 7 to 10 miles along this reach of the Sprague where the neighbors are working together," said USFWS Project Manager Sue Mattenberger. "All of the landowners want to do the right thing, but it has to pencil out."

The Sprague is a major tributary of Upper Klamath Lake and spawning ground for two endangered sucker fish and home to a recreational trout fishery. From Chiloquin near Oregon's largest lake, it winds eastward for more than 60 miles.

Mattenberger helps ranchers get money to offset project costs through her agency's Klamath Basin Ecosystem Restoration Office and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. She also advises ranchers about the state and federal fill and removal permit process administered by the Oregon Department of State Lands.

One of those taking part in the restoration is Ron Cole, who says he got spoiled while living in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He fished streams most people only dream about - nearby Henry's Fork and the Madison and Ruby rivers a bit farther north in Montana.

"I spent a lot of time on blue ribbon rivers," Cole said.

While looking for a ranch to buy, a 500-acre spread east of Chiloquin caught his eye. But there was a glaring problem with the Sprague River running through the property.

"I was appalled at what bad condition the river was in," Cole said. "There was practically no vegetation on the banks. I wanted to do what I could to bring it back."

Just two years after buying the LB Ranch, he and wife Lisa turned things around. Willows, wild strawberry and other plants grow along the banks, and new fencing keeps cattle from trampling riparian zones.

"It's amazing how fast it's come back," Cole said.

They plugged a spot where the river broke away from its natural meander, cutting straight through pasture land to connect with the channel about 100 yards downstream. Boulders lodged solidly between logs with full root wads held firm this spring when high water surged down the Sprague. The stream went back to the earlier channel.

"This year was a good test," Cole said, noting the high runoff from snowmelt.

It took 11,000 cubic yards of fill and other material to create the blockage. The successful project maintains the river's connection with a spring where endangered suckers are believed to spawn. A similar project is under way just upstream.

Mattenberger says the Coles have made "a tremendous improvement" on their two miles of Sprague habitat.

Once it's established, the riparian zone has a dense root structure that holds soil in place, she said, adding that plants filter sediment out of high flows. A vigorous riparian area also holds more water in the ground.

The Coles used heavy equipment to block the unwanted channels, one of which is the size of a football field. However, Mattenberger said the goal is to use a light hand in stream restoration.

"We want to observe nature and imitate nature," she said. "We just want to nudge Mother Nature a little."

- Friday, September 8, 2006

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