POLK COUNTY, Ore. — Since 1947, John Auer’s family has been farming the land along Jont Creek, a tributary of the Luckiamute River near the rural community of Airlie. Little did they know their creek is home to a tiny fish on the endangered species List.
In the process of researching grants to replace a failing culvert through Jont Creek’s wetlands, scientist Brian Bangs discovered the struggling Oregon chub on Auer’s property. The failing culvert threatened to cut off access to 170 acres of farmland, but Bangs said the perched culvert also threatened the chub’s wetland home.
Discovering an endangered species living on his 900-acre farm was not immediate cause for celebration, Auer told about 20 visitors earlier this year. The group was part of a public tour of water conservation projects at the confluence of the Luckiamute, Santiam and Willamette rivers. Auer was afraid his farm operations would be impacted.
He was right, but not in the way he feared. Although the little chub made things a bit more complicated, the opportunity to help the little fish prompted agencies — including the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District, the Luckiamute Watershed Council and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — to help fund a new bridge to replace the culvert and restore the wetland.
It’s a huge project that Auer admitted he wouldn’t have time to tackle, but he said he is grateful to the agencies that are pitching in. The new bridge will improve access to farmland planted to a rotating variety of crops, from fescue to squash. The project on Auer’s farm will also improve about 30 acres of wetland that had been slowly filling with non-native weeds. Weeds will be removed and replaced with native shrubs and trees aimed at providing a home for fish, as well as attracting geese, ducks and other birds.
“Our family hunts and fishes,” said Auer, who grew up in a house that still stands above Jont Creek. Over the years, reed canary grass and other weeds have crowded the wetland, pushing out wildlife. “We love to watch the ducks and the geese come in. I didn’t want to see that lost.”
Auer is not the only farmer to join in efforts to save the Oregon chub, which was added to the federal endangered species list in 1993. That year, its numbers dwindled to about a 1,000 in just a handful of locations.
In 2015, the Oregon chub became the first fish to be removed from the list, thanks to conservation efforts like Auer's. Today, Oregon Fish and Wildlife officials estimate the chub’s population has grown to more than 160,000 in 83 locations in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the western Cascades.
Conservation agreements with landowners, including Auer, protect them from some regulations as long as they agree not to drain waterways, promise not to introduce non-native fish that would compete with the chub, and agree not to apply pesticides or other agricultural chemicals directly into waterways.
In addition to the chub, these measures on Auer’s land have attracted salmon, trout and other native fish. During the tour this year, Bangs drew up fish traps to demonstrate the variety of young fish that now find shelter in Jont Creek.
The bridge and wetland project is not the only conservation area on Auers’ property. On the edge of their hardwood and fir forestland, which makes up the other half of the property, is a 30-acre spread of plants and flowers that attract insects needed to pollinate crops — from fruit trees to seed and row crops. The Conservation Reserve Program project includes wild grasses and flowering plants that bloom from spring to fall.
Aside from the benefits to his farm these projects provide, Auer said his late father mandated his only son “… to keep this place in the family and to provide a place to enjoy for generations,” Auer said. That includes, in addition to farming and timber, swimming, fishing, hunting and enjoying the river and creek for his sister, three daughters and their families, Auer said.
“We have canyons, nooks and crannies on our farms that nobody walks on for years. I want us to enjoy that for generations.”