October 30, 2007

Hip deep and hands on

photo by Scott Hammers/copyright Redmond Spokesman

The lives of thousands of tiny salmon fingerlings are in the hands of Redmond High School students.

Last week, students from Rebecca Barrett’s wildlife biology class spent two days at the Corbett Ranch, where Jack Creek and the Metolius River meet. Along with professional biologists from the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and PGE, the students were conducting a survey of fish habitat for the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and the Oregon Forest Resources Institute.

The students’ work will play a key role in informing decision-making on the fish ladder project on the Pelton Round Butte Dam at Lake Billy Chinook. The owners of the dam, PGE and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, recently started construction on a $91 million project to move salmon past the dam, as juveniles headed for the ocean and as mature fish headed back upstream to spawn.

If successful, the project will bring Chinook salmon and steelhead back to the Metolius River. Jack Creek, which feeds into the Metolius just a few miles from its source, is believed to be a potential spawning ground.

“The big question here is, ‘Is the creek good enough water quality for fish to survive and for macroinvertebrates to survive?’” Barrett said. “If we don’t have macroinvertebrates, we don’t have fish.”

Macroinvertebrates, in this instance, are what many local anglers have known for years as “bait” – caddisflies, mayflies, and stoneflies. Stream dwellers during their pupal stage, these insects are an important food source for fish and play a key role in regulating the health of a stream

The flies fall into three main categories depending on their mode of feeding – shredders, scrapers, and collectors. Shredders, for example, dine on leaves and other plant debris that falls into a stream. If the riparian areas on either side of the stream have been damaged such that little debris makes its way to the water, there will be no shredders.

On their two trips to Corbett Ranch last week, the students donned waders to walk through the icy waters, using dip nets to scoop up and count insects. They drew maps of the riparian areas, and measured water temperature, pH, and the quantity of dissolved oxygen.

For the students, it was a chance to see what they’d read about in their textbooks happening right in front of them.

“We saw a mayfly fully hatch out of its endoskeleton,” said Abraham Lopez. “It was ready to fly, but somehow, we drowned it.”

Barrett said getting a chance to work in the field alongside professional scientists gives her students a feel for the subject they can’t get in the classroom. Not only do the processes and concepts explained in class seem more real, but students who might have an interest in pursuing a career in science get a sense for what it actually involves.

The partnership between RHS and the professional biologists is the work of a group called Wolftree, a Portland-based nonprofit that works with schools and the appropriate agencies to organize watershed enhancement projects. Getting this group onto the Metolius was the result of a project run by Jay Hopp, Wolftree’s Education Director, and students from Madras High School. When Madras students presented their findings to the Jefferson County Soil and Water District board, the board members were so impressed, they turned to Wolftree when it was time to tackle to Corbett Ranch project.

The roughly 60-acre Corbett Ranch has been used for cattle grazing since the early 1900s. Between the open-ditch irrigation system, cattle wastes, and the destructive effect of cattle tromping over small plants, the ranch has had a negative impact on the health of Jack Creek and the Metolius. According to Barrett, the ranch owners have expressed an interest in undoing the damage, and opened up the property to professional biologists.

“This is a good day, more hands on,” said student Josh Perkins, whose big discovery on Friday was that fish have testicles.

“I’m not always good in the classroom, but come out here and I learn it.”

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