Wetland restoration project underway near Bend

January 22, 2015
Wetland restoration project underway near Bend

Critics worry what will happen to animals dependent upon Ryan Ranch meadow

By Dylan J. Darling

When water rises along the Deschutes River as spring nears, so will the water in a meadow just upstream of Dillon Falls near Bend.

Three culverts installed by the Tumalo Irrigation District last week are set to fill the meadow known as Ryan Ranch, creating a seasonal wetland and potential habitat for the Oregon spotted frog, said Kevin Larkin, the Bend-Fort Rock district ranger for the Deschutes National Forest. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the frog, which favors riverside wetlands, as threatened late last summer.

“This is a chance to improve that habitat and give what is now a listed, threatened species a chance to thrive in this area,” Larkin said, adding that the 65-acre meadow adjacent to the Deschutes River Trail will become a “living laboratory of wetland restoration.” He also noted the culverts feature fish screens, keeping fish from entering the wetland from the river.

Critics of the project say flooding Ryan Ranch may help the frog, but could push out other species that have come to rely on the meadow.

During the planning for the project, an ad hoc group called Friends of the Meadow raised concerns about elk and other animals in the meadow, including the Western bumblebee. While not listed for federal protection, the bumblebee is considered a sensitive species by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“I’m not very happy (about the project),” said Cheryl Buck, a member of Friends of the Meadow. “In particular, regarding the elk herd. … I have a small tear in my eye for the elk herd.”

Buck lives in Sedona, Arizona, but used to live in Central Oregon. Kathy Phillips, who lives in Corvallis but owns property near Sunriver, said she supports the Friends of the Meadow. She is also unhappy to see the project move ahead.

“It is just not good stewardship of the environment,” Phillips said. “… There is so much value to that meadow.”

She said she would like to see the project stopped and more evaluation done.

The Deschutes National Forest released finalized plans for the project last summer. In the plans, the agency said turning Ryan Ranch from a meadow to a wetland may affect the Western bumblebee and other sensitive species, but would not push them toward federal listing under the Endangered Species Act.

A wall of earth, or berm, went in along the river between 1915 and 1931, creating Ryan Ranch, according to the Forest Service. The Bureau of Reclamation reinforced the berm in 1947 to prevent releases upstream from Wickiup Dam, which it recently had completed, from spilling into the meadow where ranchers used to graze cattle.

Years in the making — planning started in 2008 — the wetland restoration project had faced opposition from irrigators, who worried that water diverted into the wetland could drain into the ground. Larkin said the wetland restoration pilot project over the next two or three should give the U.S. Forest Service and water managers time to see how much water goes into the meadow and how much goes out.

“Just so we know what we are getting into,” he said.

Work was originally set to occur last year, but Larkin said planning took longer than expected and then work crews waited for low river flows.

The installation of the culverts came as the result of irrigation districts and the Forest Service working together, said Mike Britton, chairman of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control. The board, according to its website, is an intergovernmental organization guiding water conservation projects and providing educational resources for seven irrigation districts drawing water from the Deschutes River Basin.

“Over the past several years there has been a lot of meetings and discussion and we all agreed a pilot project would be the best way to proceed,” he said.

The limited use water license granted by the Oregon Water Resources Department for the project will allow the Forest Service to submerge Ryan Ranch under several feet of water, said Kyle Gorman, regional manager for the department in Bend.

It will be left to be seen how much water stays in the wetland. He said the meadow has signs of an old drainage system, but it is not known how much water will seep into the ground.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

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