Thick mud swirling around his hip waders, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Bill Bridgeland marched toward the banks of the Coquille River, net in one hand, the other hand outstretched, palm up, skimming the surface.
BANDON — Thick mud swirling around his hip waders, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Bill Bridgeland marched toward the banks of the Coquille River, net in one hand, the other hand outstretched, palm up, skimming the surface. Bridgeland's prey: rough-skinned newts, red-legged frogs, Northwest salamanders and rare Pacific Giant salamanders.
By late afternoon on a recent weekday, he had captured all of the above, including 1,200 newts.
But this was a rescue mission, a friendly trap-and-transfer, to spare the critters from certain death at the hands of the bulldozer that was lurching along the ditch behind Bridgeland, smothering with fresh dirt what water remained in what once was one of the South Coast's largest tidal marshes.
The transfer of species out into safer pastures is one of the more sensitive and painstaking components of a massive Fish and Wildlife effort the biggest reclamation and re-creation of a tidal marsh ever attempted in Oregon.
The 418-acre expanse on the north side of the Coquille River was once a thriving wetland, home to shorebirds and salmon smolts alike. But as they have at countless other tidal marshes on the coast, farmers built dikes along the river decades ago, to keep the land mostly dry and suitable for grazing.
Until 1990, this property was home to a dairy farm. After that, ranchers continued to use it for cattle to roam around and munch grass, said Roy Lowe, a project leader for U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
It's the federal agency's mission to return the tract, and others like it, to their natural state, restoring critical habitat for birds and threatened species such as coastal coho salmon. The government bought the property in 2000 from several different landowners, spending close to $3 million. Some of the land was donated.
The restoration project's cost is $9.5 million, which includes $4.8 million in Federal Highway Administration funding, $2.7 million in stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, $1 million from the New Carissa Restoration Fund and $1 million from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.
The agency now plans to use that money to knock down the old dikes along the Coquille River, raise the road on the northern edge of the property, run the power lines underground, re-create 41/2; miles of creek and tidal channels that once allowed brackish water to flow in and out of the property naturally, and take out the tidegates that were used to regulate water flow. Bridgeland's work was to fill in 15 miles of ditches that were used to drain the property.
"You don't get opportunities like this very often," said Lowe, of the chance to improve such a large parcel all at once. "It's going to be pretty exciting to see the water flow in here again."
The project also will preserve a 500-year-old Coquille Indian historic site that was once used as a fishing and hunting ground, which is why a tribal archaeologist has kept close watch during the earth-moving for any signs of ancient artifacts that need to be protected.
The Native American element explains the marsh's new name: the Ni-les'tun Unit. A sign with that name and an explanation already is drawing visitors to the project, though the area won't be open to the public until 2012, a year after the job is finished in the fall of 2011.
Re-creating the marsh will certainly be a tourist draw, but it's mostly an environmental endeavor, and it's not a simple one, in part because the project involves raising the road on the property's northern boundary and running power lines underneath the Coquille River to replace overhead ones that interfere with bird traffic.
This latter work, in fact, have run into problems that has caused the project to be delayed a year. After successfully running one conduit beneath the river, attempts to bore under the Coquille in a different spot to run a backup power line have repeatedly failed because the tunnel keeps collapsing. The agency now plans to install a steel pipe into the bore hole to make it stable, but there's not enough time to get that done before the narrow window available to re-flood the marsh has passed.
It's a delicate dance. Agency workers have to remove the tidegates, fill in the trenches that farmers dug to drain the property, re-create the original channels that allowed water and fish to flow in from the Coquille River Estuary, add 100 spruce tree logs and root wads to the creeks to mimic natural habitat, and then, at the last moment, knock down the dike and let the water back in.
But the dike can only be bulldozed during a few days in the fall, when the tides are at their lowest. That will give the crews enough time to completely take the dike out without themselves being swamped, mired in the new mud. Problems with the power line have pushed the project past that deadline.
"The timing is really critical," Lowe said. "Once we start taking the dikes down, there's no going back."
It's a setback, Lowe said, but in the long run, the project will have a major benefit to the area's fish runs and other wildlife. Last year, fish biologists counted a run of 21,000 threatened coho salmon up the Coquille River, and the nearby 289-acre Bandon Marsh is home to the densest shorebird population on the Oregon Coast, acre for acre.
There are dabbling ducks, Western sandpipers, barn swallows, red-shouldered hawks, osprey, bald eagles and peregrine falcons in the area, and they all thrive in tidal estuaries.
When the tide comes in, the birds are forced out of much of the Bandon marsh, and now they'll have more area upriver, on higher ground, to move around in.
"We're super excited about this, from a fish standpoint," said Bridgeland, the newt hunter, noting the additional space to be made available for fish and birds. "Since it was lost (to diking), this bay has become very crowded."