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Pulling weeds, helping salmon

September 11, 2009

Students work to restore habitat of struggling salmon stream

Last week, Scott Hansen, ecologist and vice president of the Puget Creek board, was just ticking off the list of creatures that call this canopied gulch, sandwiched between suburbia and a main Tacoma arterial their home.

Bats, coyotes, eagles, hawks, snakes, toads…and salamanders.

“Hey I think we just found one,” said a PLU student working with Hansen, and 12 other volunteers on a rainy Saturday in September, as she pawed through the detritus on the forest floor.

The “one” was a red back salamander,  which had been hiding under a log where students were busily whacking away invasive species that had choked out native plants along Puget Creek in North Tacoma decades ago. The reddish-brown creature, about 6 inches long, seemed rather stunned to be the center of attention as faces peered down at it. The amphibian was then covered with moss and then students carefully worked around its new hideout, so as not to step on their find.

Then it was back to work for the PLU crew, pulling for the next two hours, English Ivy, English Laurel and English Holly. You get the picture.  “English” anything usually equals an invasive plant in the Northwest.

“This may look like a lush environment,” Hansen said, pointing to the verdant canopy overhead. “But for the wildlife, that’s not necessarily the case.”

First introduced by well meaning gardeners, the invasive shrubs and ivy quickly bully out the native vegetation, which provides food and shelter for the animals, birds and insects, which in turn provide food for the salmon stream that runs through this small cut in the landscape.

Students pause for a second and point out a sapling for Hansen. Nope, that stays, he said. It’s a wild plum.

“We’ve sort of been at war with the ivy all day,” said freshman Bryan Dahms, 18, who is a biology major, with an eye toward pre-med.

Dahms chose spending three hours cleaning up Puget Creek as part of his “On the Road’ experience last Saturday, versus a less wet and muddy choice, because he likes being outdoors and being from Alaska, feels an affinity with the salmon that once packed this creek.

Now, ecologists like Hansen, who have been working the last decade to bring the creek back to life, count the number of salmon in single digits, maybe 10 or so. But it’s a start. One that Dahms said he’s happy to be part of.

“This (trip) just rang the bell for me,” as he took a break from pulling a particularly stubborn piece of ivy from the hillside.

Chris Treasure, a freshman from Spanaway, said that this On the Road adventure held the same pull for him.

“I like to give back to the community,” said Treasure, who plans on declaring a chemistry major.

PLU work parties such as this one have been working with the Puget Creek restoration society for the last decade or so, pulling out the weeds, replanting and doing the scut work needed to bring this once flourishing stream back to life, Hansen said. And even though yanking ivy might not seem to have anything to do with salmon, it does, he explained.

The native vegetation will provide year around food for both insects and animals alike. Once they become plentiful, the food chain will reestablish itself, and provide the necessary habitat and food – usually insects and larvae – for the fish.

“It’s all interconnected,” he said.

The coho are due in October, while the chum will show up at the end of November, he estimated.

Not that there’s that many to count. But it’s a start. And one that PLU students have a hand in.

Content Development Director Barbara Clements produced this report. Contact her at 253-535-7427 or for comments or more information.