A  Fish's  Island  Paradise
©The Register Guard - Used With Permission

SPRINGFIELD - They are rare gems in the necklace that is the McKenzie River, treasured as safe havens for a variety of native fish and other wildlife.

The few remaining islands breaking up the lower river's current give juvenile chinook salmon a respite on their pilgrimage to the Pacific.

The shallow backwaters provide food and shelter for the three-spined stickleback, a minnowlike fish whose bony side plates help keep predators at bay.

The quiet pools of the side channels appeal to the Western pond turtle and the red-legged frog, species that are slipping away from nature.

Places such as the island in the bend of the river about a mile east of Gateway Mall are precious and scarce, and should be preserved for eternity, according to the McKenzie River Trust of Eugene.

"There are not many areas left in the lower McKenzie that provide that high-quality habitat," said Ryland Moore, who directs the trust's work in the McKenzie basin.

The organization teams up with private landowners to protect land that offers unique habitat along rivers and streams.

For several years it has had an eye on the island just downstream from Harvest Landing, next to the property where PeaceHealth wants to build its new hospital complex.

The trust is working with the island's owners and several nearby residents to map the ecological value of the site, with the hope of establishing a conservation easement or other means or protection, Moore said.

The efforts do not infringe on PeaceHealth's plans, said Moore, who declined to identify the island's owners while negotiations continue.

Many of the river's islands have disappeared in the wake of years of flood control and efforts to straighten the river's course - making preservation of this island all the more paramount to people like Moore.

One of the first steps is to find out which animals and plants depend on the island habitat.

Last week, biologists from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Willamette National Forest surveyed for native fish.

They found 11 species, including chinook salmon, cutthroat trout, redside shiner and pikeminnow.

"We found a lot more three-spined sticklebacks than we would normally imagine finding out there," said Jeff Ziller, district fish biologist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. "That was pretty neat. We were encouraged that the population is not as bad as we thought it was."

One of the salmon caught had been tagged with a transponder on Nov. 12 at Leaburg Dam, about 28 miles upriver.

It grew 5 millimeters over those three weeks.

In the protection of streamside vegetation along the island's backwaters, the biologists detected thousands of juvenile fish - a testament to how critical the habitat is to the rearing and survival of young fish, Ziller said.