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California vintner steps up to protect salmon

by NOAA Fisheries 11 Jul 13:17 UTC

A vintner in Northern California is upgrading a concrete fish barrier to return native salmon and steelhead to valuable spawning habitat that has been blocked for nearly a century.

A cooperative "Safe Harbor" agreement between the landowner Barbara Banke, Chairman and proprietor of Jackson Family Wines, and NOAA Fisheries and other state and local agencies has fostered the improvements. These agreements provide incentives to private landowners who help recover threatened and endangered species.

The story begins in the late 1800s, when two real estate speculators, F.E. Kellogg and W.A. Stuart, bought part of a Spanish land grant in Sonoma County and built a post office, general store, school, cottages, a hotel, and a diversion structure on a nearby stream to provide water for residents and visitors to the town.

Bypassed by the railroads, however, the little town of Kellogg eventually faded away, its remains razed by a wildfire in the 1960s that left only a handful of homes, agricultural buildings, and the water diversion structure and associated water system. Like many such remnant barriers, the concrete barrier reduced stream flow and blocked native fish, such as Central California Coast (CCC) steelhead and CCC coho salmon, a critically endangered species, from reaching their spawning habitat.

Fulfilling the recovery plan

NOAA Fisheries considers restoration of Yellow Jacket Creek an essential component in the Central California Coast Coho Recovery Plan.

Today Yellow Jacket Creek, a tributary to the Russian River, provides water to the Kellogg vineyard and associated property uses on a 1,350 acre property.

Biologists were thrilled when Katie Jackson, the Senior Vice President of corporate and social responsibility at Jackson Family Wines, approached NOAA Fisheries in Santa Rosa to discuss improving fish passage at the diversion on Yellow Jacket Creek, which would reopen access to nearly two miles of prime spawning and rearing habitat.

"My parents envisioned a family-owned, multi-generation business. Part of that long-term vision is the preservation of resources entrusted to our care," she said.

Recovering threatened and endangered anadromous fish - which once thrived in creeks, streams, and rivers along the West Coast - depends in part on private landowners taking action to improve and protect habitat. As land stewards with this in mind, Jackson Family Wines is contributing to the large-scale recovery effort. NOAA Fisheries' salmon and steelhead recovery plans, developed collaboratively with state and local government and private partners, help prioritize such improvements.

"The most enjoyable part of this project was building a relationship between the federal government and a family-owned business," said Dan Wilson, fisheries biologist for NOAA Fisheries' West Coast Region in Santa Rosa. "Building that bridge is really important for salmon recovery on the Central California Coast because it's really small entities and families that own the majority of property where these fish spawn, rear, and fulfill their life cycle."

"One of the most exciting aspects of re-opening this particular stream to coho salmon is the additional restored habitat they will have, as well as the cold water flow they need," said Wilson. "Even during the California drought, Yellow Jacket Creek produced orders of magnitude greater flow than other tributaries within the Russian River watershed."

Protection for landowners

One fear landowners interested in improving their land stewardship and conservation practices may have is that improving their property for local wildlife will attract endangered species onto their land and bring new regulatory restrictions with them. Landowners may wonder: What does it mean for their liability under the Endangered Species Act? Will it hinder future land development, or other activities on their land?

Fortunately, the Endangered Species Act provides tools and incentives for landowners to make such habitat improvements with little risk. One such tool, a Safe Harbor agreement, provides this regulatory assurance to participating landowners

NOAA Fisheries and Jackson Family Wines began working on a Safe Harbor agreement several years ago, paving the way for replacement of the diversion structure and increased stream flows during fish migration seasons.

"Managing our lands responsibly to ensure the ongoing viability of ecosystems in the foundation of how we farm and make wine. My hope is that my children will be able to watch once-endangered fish swim alongside our vineyards at the Kellogg Ranch," said Jackson.

Trout Unlimited, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries, and Jackson Family Wines all contributed to the reconstruction of the stream and removal of the concrete fish barrier, which was completed in October 2018 just before the winter rains. Future plans include stocking the stream with coho salmon from the Warm Springs Hatchery in Geyserville, with the expectation that many will return as adults two years later.

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