It was moving day last Thursday on the Middle Fork John Day River – not for human residents but for some 8,800 aquatic denizens, from threatened steelhead fish to spotted frogs.

About 100 people turned out to help net and transfer the creatures out of the north channel, a slow course cut through tailing fields left by mining in the 1930s and ’40s. The fishes’ new digs are in the river’s undredged south channel and a newly engineered stretch of Granite Boulder Creek, a key tributary.

Last week’s fish salvage operation was a critical step in a major effort to restore the fish and wildlife habitat of the Middle Fork as it traverses ranchland owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation. The property is northeast of Prairie City, in Grant County.

“The Tribes, with the help of many partners, have been working towards addressing the effects of dredging since they acquired the 1,022-acre Oxbow Conservation Area in 2001,” said Brian Cochran, restoration ecologist for the Tribes.

Large-scale dredging was common in mining 60 years ago, its legacy seen in ditchlike river reaches, sparse vegetation, disconnected floodplains, and poor fish habitat.

The Oxbow project seeks to reverse that situation on the Middle Fork.

The first phase, completed last year, included installation of log structures on the banks of the south channel as well as work to improve soils and vegetation.

The second phase, this year’s work, eliminates the 3,400-foot north channel, which not only diverted water from the south channel but also intercepted Granite Boulder Creek, further limiting the summertime flow that is critical for fish.

“This project removes the manmade north channel ditch and constructs a new channel for Granite Boulder Creek to restore its historic route,” Cochran said. Crews also will grade the tailings to restore land contours at the site, he said.

Jeff Neal, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish biologist, said the changes will mean more riffles and moving water for the fish. The north channel got warm and nearly stagnant in the summer, and that can be lethal for cold-water fish species.

“We’ve had chinook come in here in the early summer, when the water’s cool, but then it warms up and the water level drops. They get trapped,” he said. “It’s been kind of a death trap for chinook.”

Neal expects the project to boost flow by 30 percent in the remaining channel, and Granite Boulder’s new course also promises an infusion of cold water to benefit fish habitat.

“Granite Boulder is high-quality water, and it was getting put into a ditch,” said Neal.

All that changed last week. On July 25, crews blocked off the flow into the north channel. Early on July 26, Cochran and Neal gave the assembled volunteers and agency workers their assignments and tips on fish salvage. The group fanned out along the river in teams, each assigned to a 300-foot reach of the closed channel.

Throughout the morning, the volunteers could be heard calling out species’ names as they recorded their finds and put them in buckets to release in the new channel. In one area, the fish were small but many.

“I’m going to sweep to the right, over here,” cautioned Ryan Gerstenberger, a Tribes employee, as he moved a shocker across a shallow pool. “Oh, man, I think we’re gonna be in sculpin city …”

His companions waded alongside with nets, darting forward to catch not just sculpins, but crayfish and even some chinook salmon fingerlings that emerged from rocky hiding places in the channel.

Upstream, a deeper pool posed greater challenges. Organizers earlier had observed hefty adult chinooks lurking in the water, which was 12 feet deep in places.

Workers put in a pump to draw off some of the water, and an ODFW crew wearing special diving suits went into the pool with large nets to corral any remaining adult fish, pushing them toward shallower water and capture.

Each netted fish was placed in an ice chest full of river water and rushed by ATV to a nearby release site. Several were more than 2 feet long.

By the end of the operation, about 20 mature chinook were relocated from the old channel.

Cochran was pleased that the big fish were saved – he saw several the next day that seemed to be adjusting well to their new environs – but he was chagrined that so many made it into the channel. He said weirs were installed in June to try to prevent the adult fish from getting into the closure area, but some fish slipped in earlier than expected.

“I’m really happy we got them out of there,” he said, noting that these adults have survived great odds and traveled far – to the ocean and back – to get to the Middle Fork.

Most of the rescued creatures fit into buckets, not coolers, however. The numbers included more than 1,700 juvenile chinooks, 537 juvenile steelhead or redband trout, 4,090 lamprey, two bull trout – like steelhead, a threatened species – and an assortment of suckers, whitefish, shiners, native mussels and other species.

As for the water in the south channel and new creek segment, Cochran said it looked good already – running cold and clear.

Cochran lauded Iron Triangle, the main contractor on the job, for its work, particularly on the new creekbed. In addition to sculpting the stretch, workers had to remove the traces of their access and did an impressive job, he said.

He also was pleased that a local contractor got the job, providing work for local people.

The project continues this summer and fall with more soilwork, seeding and the planting of 2,800 trees and native plants. An irrigation system and exclosures are planned to bolster the survival rates of the plantings.

Some of the ongoing work will stage materials for use in the third phase, another channel restoration job that will be done in 2014.

The Tribe’s partners in the project include Bonneville Power Administration, the Bureau of Reclamation, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Ecotrust, Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and ODFW.

Last week, their ranks were bolstered by a number of community volunteers, even families, interested in the project.

The North Fork John Day Watershed Council sent its Oregon Youth Conservation Corps teens to help. Katie Eyles, working with the OYCC team, said she hadn’t had much experience with fish habitat projects, but she was ready to pitch in at one of the fish release spots.

“I enjoy conservation work in general, so I’m glad to be out here, helping and learning some more about it,” she said.

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