A project to reclaim lost salmon habitat on a milelong reach of Neil Creek through a private ranch south of Ashland is turning into a wild-fish magnet one year after completion — and in the process it's turning heads in the fish restoration world.

The $1.5 million project on Dunn Ranch has become a potential long-term asset to wild salmon and steelhead on this upper Bear Creek Basin tributary eyed as cold-water refuge for threatened wild coho that struggle in summers to beat Bear Creek's heat.

An Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife stream survey completed last week tallied 169 juvenile coho along this stretch, where surveys dating to 2002 had found just one single infant coho there, ODFW records show.

Snorkeling biologists also found 79 wild fall chinook salmon juveniles in creek pools either created or enhanced during the habitat work, records show. Not only had no fall chinook juveniles ever been discovered in these surveys, there was not even a column for chinook on ODFW's Neil Creek data sheets.

Also found were 18 juvenile steelhead and 20 juvenile cutthroat trout — two species that routinely show up in the survey, records show.

"Already the project has greatly increased the carrying capacity of that creek," said Eugene Wier, habitat restoration project manager for The Freshwater Trust, a nonprofit group contracted to build and maintain the ranch project.

"You build strategically, and they will come," Wier said.

The Dunn Ranch project is the cornerstone in a series of habitat upgrades necessary to keep the Talent Irrigation District and others who draw Bear Creek Basin water in business.

The habitat work and other changes are required under a 2012 federal agreement between NOAA-Fisheries and the Bureau of Reclamation for the irrigation districts to continue operation without illegally harming wild coho, whose habitat is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

With the Dunn Ranch owner's blessing, the work allowed the bureau to meet its habitat-improvement targets set out in the agreement with NOAA-Fisheries. Had it not done so, TID and other irrigation districts faced the loss of their federal permits to keep in operation.

As part of the project, blackberries were removed and woody material was brought in to create more than a dozen new pools while deepening a dozen others. Also, native trees were strategically planted to help shade the creek.

Overall, the habitat project focused on improving Bear Creek Basin conditions during the 14 months young coho remain in freshwater before they head to sea. That has led to minimum-flow levels required in upper Bear Creek as well as Emigrant Creek and a string of habitat-improvement projects either to cool creek waters or add deep-pool rearing space in largely channelized creeks.

In prior years, the Neil Creek stretch through Dunn Ranch did not attract rearing coho, despite being high enough in the system to present the possibility of cool rearing water, records show.

"That's where we want fish," said ODFW biologist Ryan Battleson. "There's cold water up there."

The juvenile fall chinook are present, in part, because heavy fall rains swelled Bear Creek Basin tributaries enough to draw spawning chinook far up into places such as Neil Creek, Battleson said.

While surveys have documented the presence of adult chinook in Neil Creek annually since 2011, summer surveys have not detected juveniles rearing there until now.

The survey, however, shows that at least some of their progeny have found Dunn Ranch an attractive place to rear before they head to sea as smolts later this fall, according to Battleson. Juvenile coho will remain in freshwater places like Neil Creek until spring.

"It's definitely been a palatable place to survive this summer," Battleson said.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.