Collaborative Coquille project brings opportunities for fish and recreation

At the new Coquille Valley Wildlife Area on the southern Oregon coast, hunters can get their limit of ducks and other waterfowl. Anglers can catch bass, bluegill, catfish and crappie. Photographers and wildlife watchers can spot a variety of species.

“This particular area is one that has a lot of natural resources in it in terms of bird life and fish life, and in the past it’s been all privately controlled and largely inaccessible,” said Stuart Love, district wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and manager of the Coquille Valley Wildlife Area. “This allows public access to public lands in an area where there were essentially no public lands before.”

And, soon, coho salmon and other salmonids will be able to find the habitat they need as juveniles to survive in greater numbers.

“Being able to get out of the main river and into the habitat we’re going to create will go a long way toward producing healthier juveniles and more returning adult coho salmon,” said Mike Gray, district fish biologist for ODFW.


Extensive efforts

The Coquille Valley Wildlife Area project took many years to move from idea to reality.

Steve Denney, ODFW’s former Southwest Region Manager, tirelessly negotiated with landowners and partners to secure property, address concerns from the agricultural community, and help secure funding. After retiring from ODFW, Denney became south coast conservation director for The Nature Conservancy, continuing to work on the wildlife area and other habitat restoration projects.

In years past, ODFW had land north of Coos Bay that didn’t provide the public recreational opportunities it is the agency’s mission to offer, Love said, and had begun looking for opportunities to trade that property for a different parcel in the area.

They found and traded for two parcels – about 540 acres – in April 2013.  Those were the starting point for the Coquille Valley Wildlife Area. The state later purchased another 70 acres so they could create public access.

Agricultural landowners approached ODFW several years ago, even before ODFW owned the property, with concerns that tide gates were failing and they might lose their pasture land, Gray said. They were seeking assistance in replacing tide gates and dike infrastructure, and found it would be very costly to do that while meeting state and federal criteria.

The state worked in coordination with the Beaver Slough Drainage District, which had an interest in controlling the flooding on the land to benefit farms. ODFW worked with the district on the project’s conception, funding, habitat restoration, as well as on providing wetlands mitigation required to secure some federal funds for the project.

The effort was a good opportunity for ODFW to collaborate in a way that both agriculture and natural resources benefitted equally, Love said. Often agricultural interests are in opposition to natural resources interests, Love explained.

“It gave us a great opportunity to prove that you can benefit both in certain situations. And that’s exactly what’s happened there,” Love said.

They agreed that the drainage district would apply for money through the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board to improve their infrastructure. To mitigate wetlands, ODFW would undertake a large-scale freshwater tidal habitat improvement project.

The infrastructure, which cost $12 million, benefits farmers because it enables the drainage district to control water on a large floodplain making it usable for agriculture. Without the control, this 1,700-acre area – about 1,100 of it owned by farmers and other property owners – would flood twice a day, Love said.

ODFW’s objective was to restore some tidal channels and overwintering habitat, and do it in a way that maintained a working landscape so that the agricultural economy continued to be viable, Gray said.

The timing works well because the cattle can’t graze the land in the winter when it’s flooding, so they usually leave about late October and don’t come back until early May, said Fred Messerle, a local property owner, farmer and the manager of the Beaver Creek Drainage District. The fish are there when the cattle are gone.

“Our motto is we’re going to grow beef in the summer and fish in the winter,” Messerle said.

“It’s a really good fit.”

“It’s just got a lot of use here this winter,” Messerle added. “People are pretty excited about it. The duck hunters were excited about it. Now we’re looking at the people that like to watch birds. They should have a lot of opportunities there in spring and summer.”

This summer, ODFW will excavate tidal channels and connect them to the new tide gates. The tide gates were reconstructed to meet current fish passage criteria.

Several partners helped on the project. The Nature Conservancy expedited land exchanges and contracted with an engineering company to design restoration channels. NOAA and USFWS provided grant funds. The Coquille Indian Tribe helped with funding and other resources, including mapping to determine location of historic tidal channels.  ODFW Restoration & Enhancement funding provided a $200,000 matching grant to help build the tide gate structure.


Coho’s future

ODFW’s land in the project area is divided into two parcels. The northern tract – Beaver Slough – is open to the public seven days a week. The southern piece – Winter Lake – is open on Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays and state holidays.

Both areas have a single entry point, via a new parking lot on North Bank Lane. They are open for waterfowl hunting, fishing, birding and photography. There’s also been an interest in kayaking and canoeing the channel that goes through the Beaver Slough tract, Love said.

Each person using the property is required to get a free one-day permit each time. ODFW has issued about 350 permits since November, Love said. Feedback is positive.

“People are clearly enjoying the opportunity,” Love said.

ODFW is planning other enhancements this summer, including planting vegetation that thrives in the watery ground, such as willows, ash and crab apple trees and lower-stature plants including Spirea. Grass planting will help compete with noxious weeds and provide good fish habitat. At times, cattle will be allowed to graze in the area, which conditions the land, improving fish habitat later.

Once vegetation goes in, “it will be a prime destination for people interested in wildlife viewing,” Love said.

The biggest benefit will be to the fish.

Historically, it’s estimated that the basin could have produced 300,000 to even 400,000 adult coho salmon in a peak year, Gray said. However, in the past 20 years they’ve had far less and currently are averaging about 20,000 to 25,000 adult Coho salmon returning annually, in part because tidal wetlands were cut off by dikes put in place in the early 1900s.

The project is designed to benefit salmonids, with a focus on coho salmon. It also helps cutthroat trout, Pacific lamprey, winter steelhead and fall Chinook salmon.

One factor for coho is that off-channel rearing habitat, particularly in the winter, can increase survival of juveniles by getting them out of the main river channel while they grow.

“We are looking for large-scale actions that can help to recover that Oregon coast coho,” Gray said. “…It’s going to take some really large scale projects like this up and down the Oregon coast to try to get to recovery.”

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