New guide to better riparian areas in the Willamette Valley

Douglas Spirea in a Willamette Valley riparian area. Photo by Jared Kinnear.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The health of fish and wildlife and the quality of the water they call home depend in large measure on the trees and shrubs that grow in riparian areas along streams and riverbanks.

Although the task is not easy, riparian areas that are damaged can be replanted. Six manageable steps are detailed in a comprehensive Oregon State University guide written by OSU Extension foresters Glenn Ahrens, Max Bennett and Brad Withrow-Robinson.

The new 27-page booklet, “A Guide to Riparian Tree and Shrub Planting in the Willamette Valley: Steps to Success,” is available free from OSU Extension online at:

In healthy riparian areas, plants help control erosion and trees give shade to cool the water. Leaves and insects drop into the water to feed fish, and migratory songbirds nest in well-developed shrub layers.

Efforts to restore riparian areas in Oregon have become more common during the last several years, Withrow-Robinson said. But the success of riparian plantings varies widely, and some fail.

“Problems arrive because seedling survival and growth are often poor, competition from weeds can be high, soil texture can vary widely and animal damage is common,” Withrow-Robinson said.

To help landowners, watershed councils and others avoid the obstacles, the guide gives information specific to the Willamette Valley, Withrow-Robinson said. “The valley is particularly challenging because summers are hot and dry and streams run through agricultural and urban areas that have been modified.”

The guide explains how to understand a watershed and what it needs the most.

“In western Oregon, warm stream water usually is the primary water-quality issue,” Withrow-Robinson said. The authors recommend that landowners examine their site and identify specific challenges such as frequent flooding, poorly drained soils and types of weeds.

Information tables in the guide compare characteristics of several seedling and stock species that flourish in the Willamette Valley and which plants and trees have a high tolerance to flooding, drought and shade. Because it’s important that planting is done right, the guide gives specifics on how to handle seedlings carefully, plant during the winter dormant season and use proper tools.

It also specifies how to minimize erosion, control weeds, prevent animal damage and consider if irrigation is needed.

Don't Move a Mussel in the PNW!

Just last month, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife inspectors discovered zebra mussels attached to a Michigan-based recreational boat arriving in Oregon at the Ashland Port of Entry. This was a strong wake-up call that the devastating mussels are on their way. It will only take one boat and one organism to infest Oregon waters.

US Fish and Wildlife Service have produced this video for helping show how easy it is to spread the mussels and how easy it is to prevent that spread into our state’s precious waterways.

To learn more about zebra and quagga mussels and programs aimed to prevent and detect their invasion, visit:

Catastrophic amphibian declines have multiple causes

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Amphibian declines around the world have forced many species to the brink of extinction, are much more complex than realized and have multiple causes that are still not fully understood, researchers conclude in a new report.

The search for a single causative factor is often missing the larger picture, they said, and approaches to address the crisis may fail if they don’t consider the totality of causes – or could even make things worse.

No one issue can explain all of the population declines that are occurring at an unprecedented rate, and much faster in amphibians than most other animals, the scientists conclude in a study just published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Continue reading

Coastal Cutthroat Trout: up close and personal

From stormwater to fish, video is taking over the world of social media. Another remarkable find in video is below–this time a intimate look at coastal cutthroat trout in the Mt. Hood National Forest. The videographer caught and has skillfully edited some stunning shots of these amazing fish as they prepare redds (nests for eggs), spawn and move about in cold, clear Cascade streams. This is some of the most stunning footage of freshwater fish that I’ve seen yet!

Behind the bubble curtain: The Underwater World of Coastal Cutthroat Trout from David Saiget on Vimeo.

Secret Lives of Steelhead and Rainbow Trout

Steelhead trout swimming. Photo by Oregons State University

Steelhead trout. Photo by Oregon State University

When I was about 7 years old I had the thrill of catching my first fish. It wasn’t in a cold wild stream, nor a calm mountain lake.  Rather, it was after putting a rented fishing line into a stocked trout pond filled with rainbow trout. The fish probably weighed about 5 lbs. and was pretty tame by any standards.  Nonetheless, it was still thrilling to me to see the beautiful bright animal on the end of my line.  I’ll never forget it.

Pacific Northwest rainbow trout are even more special.  Like their larger cousins–the wild salmon–some of these beauties slip downstream and enter the Pacific Ocean, returning as massive, 30 lb. steelhead trout. And for many years, it was assumed that these ocean-running fish were their own species, separate from their more diminutive freshwater bound cousins.  But now we know better.

These cousins are actually a lot closer than we thought! Researchers at OSU have concluded that around 40% of a steelhead trout’s genes come from wild rainbow trout. This means that both populations are interbreeding. It also means that the populations are genetically fluid–or mixing at different points in their evolution. So a steelhead enters a stream, breeds with a local rainbow trout. Some of those offspring are returning to the sea as steelhead, while others may stay local. And the rainbow trout then act as a “fail-safe” for steelhead when the ocean conditions are poor (and hence the returning adults are fewer). This is not the same case with salmon, who must have success in fresh and saltwater environments throughout their life-cycles.

Furthermore, hatchery raised trout are only contributing a very small amount of genes to steelhead–its mostly a wild fish thing.

So consider that lowly rainbow trout as a contributor to its larger, perhaps more amazing  ocean-going cousins.  Evolution is in action in these fish.  Check out more on this topic at ScienceBlog.

Saving Suckers

Before I moved back to Oregon, I lived and worked as a watershed-related professional in Arizona. As part of that work, I grew to deeply appreciate the mighty Colorado River watershed. The Colorado is an amazing river–it produces thousands of tons of sediment, rises to extreme heights as the snows melt from the Rockies and until the advent of the 20th century dams along most of its reaches, it sometimes flowed with a ferocity that has swept away whole towns along its banks.  Then it drops to lows as the summertime heat bakes the lowest reaches with temperatures in the low 100s.  Within that challenging system, and in spite of the dams, the Colorado and some its tributaries support an amazing variety of wildlife, including fish that look like something out of the movie Jurassic Park. One such fish is the strange and exotic-looking Razorback Sucker. Living for upwards of 50 years and weighing as much as 13 lbs., the 3 foot long fish are adapted to living in the dark, muddy bottomed river.

Razorback Sucker. Illustration by Joseph R. Tomelleri.

But due to the introduction of millions of non-native fish, and because of changes in the loads of sediment and flow patterns thanks to the many large dams on it, most of these fish face extinction or are functionally gone from the main stem for the foreseeable future. Razorbacks are down to roughly 3,500 individuals in the lower river. Others such as the giant (22″) Bonytail minnow are largely gone from the river altogether.

Readers of the June 7th edition of High Country News got a nice dose of the complexities around trying to save the remaining members of these amazing, prehistoric fish. Check out Hillary Rosner’s excellent piece on saving the Razorback Sucker.  For some equally well done work, check out native fish biologist and photographer Abraham Karam’s wonderful slideshow on the sucker and his work in the Lower Colorado River.

Up here in the Pacific Northwest, we are often accused of being pretty salmon-centric in our thinking.  I encourage you to take a few moments away from our own fine-finned fauna to look at another, equally amazing fish and how the complexities of bringing them back from the brink of near extinction are just as vexing.

Weighing Costs and Risk of Quagga and Zebra Mussels in the Columbia

Photo courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant College Program.

Zebra and Quagga Mussels will cost PNW energy ratepayers a lot of money concludes a draft study by Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Independent Economic Advisory Board. It will also cost other users of the river and its tributaries including agricultural irrigators, municipal water suppliers, marina owners, and fish hatcheries.  Though the study isn’t due out until June, this is a big step towards quantifying the threat of aquatic invasive organisms like Quagga and Zebra (Dreissenid) mussels, so reports the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Bulletin.

“During its January meeting the Nation Power and Conservation Council [NPCC] tasked the IEAB with analyzing potential economic effects of a quagga or zebra mussel infestation of the Columbia River basin with a focus on the Federal Columbia River Power System and the NPCC’s fish and wildlife program.

The IEAB’s final report, which is due in June, should help the Council and other policy makers in the region better understand the potential damage and related costs of a mussel infestation as compared to the potential cost of preventative actions. Mann was in Boise to give the Council a progress report on the project.”

The Bulletin goes on to list some of the areas that could be impacted by a mussel infestation:

“The IEAB is gathering information on possible impacts to infrastructure within the Council’s sphere of influence, including any submerged components and conduits of the FCRPS, including juvenile and adult fish passage and monitoring facilities, navigation locks, hydropower facilities, raw water distribution systems for hatcheries, turbine cooling, and water supply; trash racks, diffuser gratings, and drains.

Non-FCRPS [Federal Columbia River Power System] irrigation, municipal water supply and other infrastructure could also be affected, and a mussel invasion also has the potential to collapse the existing food chain.

There are no known zebra or quagga infestations in the Pacific Northwest but they seem to be moving closer and closer. The invasive mussels were found in January 2007 in Lake Mead in the Southwest and since then quagga or zebra mussels have been found in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Texas and Utah.”

In the Columbia system, however, there are still plenty of questions about whether the organisms can survive in our low calcium waters or under different types of stream conditions.  The results of a study in the Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment published on-line in by OSU’s Thom Whittier and others shows that these European mussels don’t thrive unless waters are still and calcium levels are high.  Many of the streams and lakes of Western Oregon and Washington are therefore, probably low risk in terms of infestation. But uncertainties remain, as they did in the Colorado River system before the mussels arrived there and proliferated, despite some of the indications otherwise.

Image courtesy of Thom Whittier, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

What have these organisms cost other, comparable areas?  In the Great Lakes area–the location with the longest history of infestation, mussels have cost the power industry about $3.1 billion between 1993 and 1999 according to Congressional researchers. Overall community impacts totaled at least $5 billion according to the Quagga-Zebra Mussel Action Plan for Western U.S. Waters.

The point of this is that for quagga and zebra mussels, as well any other aquatic invader, risk–biological, physical and economic–needs to be determined to better prepare for invasions.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.  If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.  If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. — Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”

NOAA research highlights that pesticides and salmon don't mix

Wild chinook spawning in a N. Oregon coast river. Photo by Beth Lambert, OSU.

Wild chinook spawning in a N. Oregon coast river. Photo by Beth Lambert, OSU.

Water quality and salmon watchers have been following this research for a while but now it’s hot off the presses.  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Northwest Fisheries Science Center scientist David Baldwin just published his findings in the Ecological Society of America’s December issue of Ecological Applications.  The upshot: exposure to low levels of common pesticides used by farmers and city dwellers alike may hinder the growth and survival of wild salmon. Furthermore, toxicity increases when the chemicals are mixed together in the water.

Using existing data and a model for growth and reproduction, Baldwin and his colleagues found that  with only 4 days of exposure to pesticides such as diazinon and malathion can change the freshwater growth and, by extension, the subsequent survival of subyearling fish.

Improving water quality could improve recovery of salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act, the researchers said. What are the keys to success in this case?  Lowering pesticide use by implementing integrated pest management strategies (IPM), minimizing over application, and applying pesticides correctly to minimize drift into local waterways.

Check out these OSU Extension resources for:

Also, check out Jeff Jenkins’ narrated slide presentation on pesticides in water here.

Zombie mudshrimp & devastated estuaries

I have blogged extensively on the grim march of invasive species here at H20NCoast. While this topic is always relevant, I took a break for a while from the bad (and sometimes good) news about biological invasions.  This piece, however, just popped into my email and begs for immediate attention.  Straight from OSU News and Communication Services:

Isopod infested mudshrimp, photo courtesy of OSU

NEWPORT, Ore. – A parasitic isopod that scientists identified five years ago has all but decimated mud shrimp populations in coastal estuaries ranging from British Columbia to northern California – with the exception of a handful of locations in Oregon from Waldport to Tillamook.

And those surviving mud shrimp all are heavily infested with the parasite, known as Orthione griffenis, or Griffen’s isopod, which threatens their existence as well, experts say.

“From Bamfield, Canada, down to Willapa Bay, Wash., the mud shrimp are either gone or the populations are severely depressed,” said John Chapman, an Oregon State University invasive species specialist who works out of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. “There are areas along the central- to northern Oregon coast where mud shrimp are still abundant.

“But the parasite that infects them also is abundant,” Chapman added, “and nearly all of these remaining shrimp populations are declining, which means that none of them appear to be safe.”

Continue reading

Beware the Yellow Flag!

There’s a gorgeous, large yellow iris called “yellow flag” or “yellow water iris” (Iris pseudacorus) found in wetlands, along riverbanks and near ponds in Oregon. It is sold in local nurseries and garden stores as well.

Image courtesy of Oregon State University Extension ServiceBut there’s a big problem with this lovely perennial iris. It is invasive and out-competes native riparian vegetation, including cattails, sedges and rushes, and it degrades native fish habitat, as well as bird nesting and rearing sites. Native to Europe, Great Britain, North Africa and the Mediterranean region, yellow flag iris has been introduced in temperate areas nearly worldwide and occurs throughout the United States except in the Rocky Mountains. It appears to be most common near developed areas.

You wouldn’t expect widely available, familiar plants like yellow flag iris to be out-of-control noxious weeds. But yellow flag iris, native to Europe, has escaped cultivation and moved into rivers of the Pacific Northwest.

With large showy yellow blossoms, yellow flag, also known as water flag, can grow in large clumps and has been know to reduce the carrying capacity of wetlands for water storage, and block irrigation canal flow and flood control ditches. Difficult to eradicate, it is common in mid-Willamette Valley riparian areas and has been found along rivers in central Oregon.

“If you see a yellow-flowered iris growing directly in water in Oregon, it is most likely yellow flag,” said Andy Hulting, a weed specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Service.

In Oregon, yellow flag blooms in late spring or early summer. Several flowers can occur on each stem, along with one or two leafy bracts. Each flower resembles a common garden iris with three large (1.5- to 3-inch) downward facing yellow sepals and three smaller upward pointing petals. The yellow sepals are often streaked with brown to purple lines. Flower color ranges from cream to bright yellow. Some horticultural varieties have been developed with variegated leaf color. The plants may grow to almost five feet in height. The leaves are mostly basal and are folded and clasp the stem at the base in a fan-like fashion.

A perennial, yellow flag iris will remain green during the winter where the weather is mild, but leaves will die back during periods of prolonged drought or below-freezing temperatures. It spreads both by seed and by stout underground stems called rhizomes from which its roots can grow to a foot in length.

After flowering, the large seed capsules of yellow iris are up to 2.5 inches long and contain many dark to reddish-brown seeds. When not flowering, yellow flag iris may be confused with cattail (Typha latifolia) or broad-fruited bur-reed (Sparganium eurycarpum). Look for the fruits in the summer, or the fan-shaped plant-base at other times of year.

Up to several hundred flowering plants may be connected by rhizomes. Fragments of rhizome can form new plants if they break off and drift to suitable habitat. The flowers are pollinated by bumblebees and long-tongued flies. Seeds germinate and grow well after being burned in late summer. Yellow flag readily resprouts from rhizomes after burning.

As a popular ornamental plant for wet areas or well-mulched soil, yellow flag is widely sold in nurseries and on the Web. It has often been planted in wastewater or storm water treatment ponds, been used to control erosion and is known to take up metals and nutrients in wastewater treatment facilities. It is a popular garden plant for wet or well-mulched soil, and has been introduced as an ornamental throughout the world.

“Yellow flag is being widely distributed by water garden enthusiasts,” said Hulting. “This likely leads to unintentional releases in urban and suburban wetlands and eventually wetlands across the landscape, spread by seed and rhizome fragments during high water events. We’d like to help gardeners become more aware of the ecological effects invasive plants like yellow iris might have on the environment.”

The best control is prevention, said Hulting. “Learn to identify it and don’t plant it. Encourage other gardeners not to plant it.”

Yellow flag is listed on the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Noxious B list, meaning it is locally invasive and not yet widespread. The Pacific Northwest Exotic Pest Plant Council lists it as ‘A-2 Most Invasive-Regional’ (highly to moderately invasive but still with a potential to spread).

The OSU Extension Service recommends the following wetland native plants as being more ecologically appropriate alternatives to yellow flag: monkey flower, Rocky Mountain iris, Douglas iris and skunk cabbage. Also, these non-native ornamentals are less invasive: Japanese iris, Siberian iris and blue flag.

To help home gardeners and landscape designers make sound ecological choices about what to plant in their gardens, the Oregon State University Extension Service has published a 52-page booklet called GardenSmart Oregon (EC 1620), in cooperation with City of Portland, The Nature Conservancy, Oregon Association of Nurseries, Clackamas Community College, Oregon Public Broadcasting, OSU Extension Service and OSU Sea Grant. GardenSmart Oregon is available online at:

Or, call 1-800-561-6719 to request a printed copy of GardenSmart Oregon ($3 per copy shipping and handling fee). Local county offices of the OSU Extension Service have copies available for no charge.

Pulling can control isolated plants of yellow flag iris or digging, but use care and protect your skin as resins in the leaves and rhizomes can cause irritation. Because rhizome fragments can grow to form new plants, be sure to clean up all fragments. Large-scale tillage to control yellow flag should be avoided because of the likelihood of spreading rhizome fragments, warned Hulting.

“Limiting soil disturbance can help native plants survive and make the site more resilient to reinvasion by yellow flag,” he said.

If you can do nothing else, remove and destroy the seed heads and flowers of yellow flag, he advised.

Large-scale infestations of yellow flag most likely need to be managed by chemical means to achieve complete control and limit the spread. Formulations of glyphosate labeled for aquatic uses (examples: Rodeo or Aquamaster) have been effective on yellow flag iris when applied as a spot treatment. Take care to not overspray onto desirable plants when making glyphosate applications. Follow the mixing directions and application instructions on each label.

“Cut stump” treatments, or cutting or mowing foliage and applying glyphosate directly to the cut surface of individual plants have also been effective for managing smaller infestations of yellow flag iris and can negate herbicide injury to non-target plants. Because this plant is a rhizomatous perennial multiple applications over multiple years will likely be needed for complete control, said Hulting.

No biological control organisms have been approved for yellow flag iris.