• Todd Zuchowski, a Fort Lewis Fish and Wildlife biologist, watches salmon swim in a spawning area at Halverson's Springs, Wash., Jan. 22.

    Restoring salmon habitat

    Todd Zuchowski, a Fort Lewis Fish and Wildlife biologist, watches salmon swim in a spawning area at Halverson's Springs, Wash., Jan. 22.

  • Salmon swim above a spawning ground at Halverson's Springs, Wash., Jan. 22.

    Salmon habitat

    Salmon swim above a spawning ground at Halverson's Springs, Wash., Jan. 22.

  • Non-native Canary Grass has threatened the salmon habitat in Muck Creek because it's root system makes it nearly impossible for salmon to spawn in the gravel creek bed.

    Salmon habitat

    Non-native Canary Grass has threatened the salmon habitat in Muck Creek because it's root system makes it nearly impossible for salmon to spawn in the gravel creek bed.

  • Todd Zuchowski, a Fort Lewis Fish and Wildlife biologist, looks for signs of salmon above the fish ladder at Chamber's Lake, Wash., Jan. 22.

    Salmon habitat

    Todd Zuchowski, a Fort Lewis Fish and Wildlife biologist, looks for signs of salmon above the fish ladder at Chamber's Lake, Wash., Jan. 22.

  • Nisqually Tribal elder Robert Sison discusses the return of salmon with 555th Engineer Brigade commander Col. Michael Brobeck.

    Salmon habitat

    Nisqually Tribal elder Robert Sison discusses the return of salmon with 555th Engineer Brigade commander Col. Michael Brobeck.

  • Nisqually Tribal Elder Robert Sison offers a traditional blessing as salmon return to spawn in Muck Creek, Wash.

    Salmon habitat

    Nisqually Tribal Elder Robert Sison offers a traditional blessing as salmon return to spawn in Muck Creek, Wash.

FORT LEWIS, Wash. (Jan. 29, 2010) -- Laboring to continue upstream, a lone chum salmon spent its last moments of life being revered and celebrated by a gathering of people along the shore of Muck Creek in Roy, Wash.

Residents of Roy, Nisqually Tribal members, Pierce County personnel and members of the Fort Lewis team were all on hand to welcome home their honored guest at the Roy City Park Jan. 23.

For chum salmon battling their way up Muck Creek, the homecoming marks the end of a life's journey, which can exceed some 2,000 miles of travel. Along the way, the fish face many obstacles in reaching their spawning grounds.

Todd Zuchowski, Fort Lewis Fish and Wildlife biologist and Washington native, said the nine-mile section of Muck Creek that cuts through Fort Lewis lands is a critical one for spawning salmon. Fed by crisp, clean spring water, Exiter Springs is the most productive area for spawning on Fort Lewis, he said. The efforts are not only for the health of the fish, he said.

Fort Lewis teamed up with several agencies to accomplish the restoration work.

"We historically had done quite a few projects with the Nisqually Tribe," Zuchowski said.

He credits the close ties with the tribe with the success of the productive restoration efforts.

"We enjoy a strong partnership with the Nisqually Tribe," Zuchowski said.

A positive impact on salmon health leads to other positive impacts on the surrounding environment, he said.

"Salmon are one of the biggest sources of eagle food," Zuchowski said. "So, when we're enhancing the salmon habitat, we're also helping the eagle habitat as well."

Zuchowski said Muck Creek and the Nisqually River average more than 250 migratory eagles each year.

Physical obstacles, flooding and predatory wildlife all impede the salmon's ability to spawn. However, one threat outweighs the rest. Reed canary grass is one of the major threats to salmon spawning, he said. The non-native species of grass overgrows the gravel creek bed and prevents the fish from spawning.

"Our ultimate goal for salmon restoration is getting some riparian trees and shrubs to build a riparian buffer zone," Zuchowski said.

The invasive grass, which is intolerant of shade, can be controlled through the planting of shade trees and plants. Planting of native species trees and shrubs in the past has yielded positive results, he said.

Work to restore Muck Creek has been an ongoing effort for more than 25 years.

"Back in the early '80s, they did a project (at Muck Creek) where they put spawning gravel in," Zuchowski said.

The work that took place in the impact area required an Explosive Ordnance Disposal clearance before it could be completed. These days, restoration work in the impact area takes place during a few short windows of opportunity, he said.

All of the hard work seems to be paying off.

During the Roy Salmon Homecoming event, Col. Michael Brobeck, commander of the 555th Engineer Brigade, was on hand to laud the efforts of Zuchowski, the Fort Lewis team and their partners.

"This is just an awesome event," Brobeck said.

The amount of teamwork and dedication that go into maintaining the health of the creek is inspiring, he said.

"Fort Lewis is proud to do our part," Brobeck said. "We understand that we must be good stewards of the land, the water and of the fish."

Brobeck said the engineers have taken an active role in the restoration process. They built bridges over the creek to keep Soldiers and vehicles from damaging the salmon habitat.

"We're looking forward to continuing this cooperation for years to come," he said.

Brobeck and Nisqually Tribal Elder Robert Sison talked about the accomplishments made at Muck Creek. During a blessing of the creek, Sison said words of thanks for the restoration and to the Chum salmon for returning.

"The fish are having a hard time coming home," Sison said.

Roy Mayor Karen Yates also praised the efforts and continued work on the creek.

"People who lived here for a long time remember that there used to be a lot of salmon in the creek," Yates said. "It's really the work of everybody working together that will make a difference in their return."

(Rick Wood is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian)

Page last updated Fri January 29th, 2010 at 17:56