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Three Oregon Watersheds Drives Coho Recovery

Nov 15, 2023 Author: Ramona DeNies

Five years and 24 projects later, our first NOAA cooperative agreement is a wrap. It’s just phase one of our grander plan for coho salmon.

Five years. Three watersheds. Twenty-four projects.

In October, the Wild Salmon Center officially wrapped up a five-year cooperative agreement with the NOAA Restoration Center—the first of two, to date, designed to benefit Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast coho salmon and Oregon Coast coho salmon, both listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The agreement detailed an ambitious $2.5 million work plan for the WSC-managed Coast Coho Partnership to enhance coho habitat and improve fish passage in three Oregon watersheds: the Nehalem, Siuslaw, and Elk. Now, the shovels are down, and WSC and our CCP partners are celebrating the moment. 

Matt Swanson (photo above) of the Curry Watershed Partnership (a local member of the Coast Coho Partnership), laughs with a contractor (left) at the Cedar Creek project site on the Elk River. (PC: Brian Kelley @brianfilm)

“We chose these 24 projects for their ability to have long-lasting positive effects for the coho and people that call these rivers home,” says Dr. Tim Elder, WSC’s Southwest Oregon Program Manager. “Now our hope is that this targeted work further boosts the already promising signs we’re seeing for coho in these watersheds.”

Coho spotted on the Nehalem River.

Coho are a keystone species, meaning that when they thrive, so do a host of other species that share these ecosystems. In 2022, NOAA reported that when compared with other West Coast salmonid species over the previous five years, Oregon Coast coho returns remained encouragingly strong. In the report, NOAA pointed to habitat restoration as a key part of why we’re seeing this “bright spot for salmon recovery.” To sustain this progress, the agency called for more restoration work across the coastal Pacific Northwest. 

We’re already working to make that happen. Since 2019, two more NOAA cooperative agreements are supporting even more high-value CCP projects in the Coos, Rogue, Siletz, Nehalem, and Elk: projects targeted through science-driven, watershed-specific strategic action plans (SAPs). And we’re looking to go even bigger. According to Dr. Elder, WSC and our partners have selected four additional watersheds (the Sixes River, New River/Floras, Nestucca, and South Umpqua) as the focus of new SAPs, and identified an additional 21 target projects in the Rogue, Elk, Coos, Coquille, Siuslaw, Siletz, and Nehalem.

“This first cooperative agreement enabled us to prove the concept—that our restoration strategy really can move the needle for coho recovery,” Dr. Elder says. “With coho populations stabilizing in many of the watersheds where we’re working, now we’re ready to scale our restoration vision up and down the Oregon Coast.”

Below, see three projects that show what the Coast Coho Partnership can accomplish for coho, thanks to support from NOAA Restoration Center, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and our local partners and crews.


Oregon restoration work completed under the 2017 NOAA cooperative agreement: 

Reconnected reconnected 5 miles of stream habitat;

Restored 199 acres of instream, wetland or tidal habitat; and

Enhanced 203.6 acres of riparian habitat


A bird’s-eye view of Cedar Creek just before culvert removal. Downstream of the road crossing at upper right (with culvert underneath) is a 4,200-foot stretch of newly remeandered creek flowing toward the Elk River. With a bridge replacing the culvert, now-accessible habitat upstream will also be restored for fish. (PC: Brian Kelley @brianfilm)

When coho thrive, so do a host of other species that share these ecosystems, including coastal cutthroat trout.

With the Curry Soil and Water Conservation District, landowner Terry Wahl, and other partners, the Cedar Creek Enhancement project transformed a heavily ditched stream on a South Coast sheep ranch into a fully remeandered creek: cooler and more complex habitat that benefits local populations of Southern Oregon/Northern California coho salmon, steelhead, lamprey, and coastal cutthroat trout.

Crews regraded the streambanks and placed 83 instream log structures, while revegetating 11-plus surrounding acres with native shrubs and trees. A failing culvert was replaced with a 46-foot bridge, restoring unimpeded fish passage and sediment transport, while an adjacent wetland was reconnected and restored to its original hydrological function.


Some of the more than 200 trees moved into a trio of Siuslaw tributary creeks—along with a stretch of a now-obliterated problematic creekside road. 

The Siuslaw Watershed Council was the lead local partner in this complex project to regrade, fill, and reconnect Fivemile, Middle Bell, and Bell Creeks in the Siuslaw watershed, home to local populations of Oregon Coast coho salmon.

More than a mile of abandoned valley-bottom road was obliterated and restored to natural hydrologic function, along with upland cat roads. Meanwhile, helicopter crews moved more than 200 ridgeline trees—many of them with substantial root wads still intact—and engineered them into each creek bed with the aim of promoting complex, high-quality fish habitat.


Between 2018 and 2019, 57 beaver dam analogues (BDAs) have been installed on tributaries of the Nehalem River. Follow-up monitoring has shown the success of these woody structures in recruiting beavers back to work, building salmon-friendly pools and channels.

Recruiting beavers back to wild fish streams is now a key part of a salmon recovery.

The Upper Nehalem Watershed Council took the lead on repairing decades of “stream-cleaning” and beaver eradication activities in this key North Coast coho river: activities that depleted critical Oregon Coast coho habitat. Beaver reintroduction is increasingly recognized as a key tool in salmon recovery, particularly for juveniles that find winter refuge in beaver-enhanced ponds, terraces, and off-channel habitat.

Over the course of two years, heavy equipment operators placed 57 beaver dam analogues (BDAs) and five large woody debris structures in 10 Nehalem tributaries. To date, beavers are already using at least 16 of these BDAs, with juvenile coho benefiting from an additional 11.5 acres of newly-created pools.

3 Oregon Watersheds Drive Coho Recovery

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In A Landscape performance at Shore Acres State Park

photo by Samantha Swindler of The Oregonian

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