Draft Horses Pull Their Weight for Endangered Fish

In Oregon, horses and loggers learn ecological skills restoring fish habitat

Out along Beaver Creek, Pancho and Samson are doing their part to help save endangered fish.

Nearly two tons of draft horse combined, they're straining against their harnesses, pulling on cables attached to logs being muscled into this stream in southern Oregon, where new habitat is being built for salmon and steelhead threatened with extinction.

Just a few feet behind them, Debbie Evans (110 pounds, including heavy boots and hard hat) has her hands firmly on the reins. "Good boys, well done, that's the way to do it," she says in a steady, even voice. When she says "good," which she does often, it's drawn out and multisyllabled - "g-o-o-o-o-d" - so it sounds like neighing.

There appears to be little doubt about who's in charge here. But at times, when a blur of thundering horses sends up a cloud of dust, it seems as if her control is tenuous. If they decide to go left around a tree instead of right, well then left it is.

"I've been dragged around a bit, I'll admit it," she says. "When they get going, they get going." But for the most part, it's as precise as parallel parking a Buick.

The activity here also includes the training of loggers, many of whom have seen their way of life and work impacted by environmental sensitivities over spotted owls and other endangered species. With help from government, educational, and nonprofit organizations, they are paid to work on environmental restoration while learning new skills at a local community college.

Up and down the West Coast, streams that are spawning grounds for anadromous (sea-going) fish are in trouble. Logging, cattle grazing, mining, farming, residential and commercial development, and hundreds of dams have taken their toll. The numbers of salmon and steelhead (a species of trout) have plummeted.

Last month, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed five populations of steelhead under the federal Endangered Species Act. Parts of Oregon, Washington, California, and Idaho are affected.

Added to the already-listed salmon, this means recovery plans must be drawn up and implemented for places like Beaver Creek (which flows into the Applegate River, on into the Rogue River, and then the Pacific).

Part of the plan for fish recovery here involves restoring habitat that has been destroyed by human activities and heavy winter weather. This includes putting logs and other woody debris into beaver dam-like structures that create the kind of pools fish need.

That's where Samson and Pancho come in. Without them, moving a 50-foot cedar log that is two feet in diameter would take heavy equipment that could end up doing more harm than good.

"When you bring a big piece of equipment in here it destroys a lot of the ecosystem," says Steve Trask, a fish biologist and partner with Ms. Evans and her husband in their company, "Oregon Horse Power."

"It compacts soil, it destroys vegetation, and it damages trees," he says. "It's destruction in the name of restoration."

As for the loggers, their goal is to become "ecosystem management technicians," fencing off riparian areas damaged by cattle, thinning parts of the forest that have become a fire hazard, or constructing habitat for threatened salmon and steelhead.

"I've been a professional tree killer all my life," jokes Paul Curtis, a descendent of Oregon pioneers who is now in the training program. "I worked for years pulling logs out of the creeks. But if they want to pay me to put them back in the creeks, then, by golly, I'll do it."

Mr. Curtis now works four days a week in the woods on stream restoration, then spends Fridays at nearby Rogue Community College taking business and computer courses. His goal is to have his own contracting business in ecosystem restoration, as several graduates of the "Jobs in the Woods" program now do.

This is also true for younger men from rural areas (such as Scott Ingledue, just out of high school) who probably would have joined their fathers and uncles as loggers.

"We're helping to create a skilled work force, and providing displaced forest workers with family-wage jobs," says Tom Dew, who works for the United States Forest Service here in southern Oregon. "And the work quality is excellent."

Horses have been helping loggers since long before the internal combustion engine was invented. Now, like the loggers themselves, horses are learning new skills in the woods - sometimes from each other.

"Pancho [who's five years older] definitely has a calming influence on Samson," says Evans, who farmed with horses in Tennessee before moving to Oregon 11 years ago. "They have to be pretty willing and trusting to do what you want them to do."

"Listen up Sam," she says as the pair gets ready to haul on the cable again. "You've got to stop thinking and start listening.... That's good.... That's what you're supposed to do.... Oh, you're g-o-o-o-d!"

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