Emigrant Lake wetlands suffer

The swampy wetlands at the southern end of Emigrant Lake teem with wildlife each spring. Eagles, osprey and even sandhill cranes fish the marshy waters and nest in the trees where Emigrant Creek flows into the reservoir just east of Ashland.

"They all come here because this is where they want to be," says Jim Bronson, whose home overlooks the area called the Emigrant Creek Wetlands.

The area also is a destination for some of the lake's wilder recreators, those who illegally drive in the reservoir bed, build campfires, fire shotguns and engage in other activities specifically banned on these lands.

So Bronson is busy cleaning up after that sort of wild life, helping ready the wetlands as ospreys and other migrants are returning to the lake this spring, while keeping an eye toward long-term reductions to man's heavy hand here.

For now, that means picking up garbage, putting out fires and disposing of discarded fishing line and other debris that can harm some of the wetlands' most visible visitors.

At an osprey nest on a nearby Pacific Power pole two years ago, some monofilament got tangled in a young osprey's talons, causing it to hang perilously upside down. Bronson discovered the emergency and called Pacific Power, whose crews came to help save the bird in a rescue played out for the media to chronicle.

But such emergencies happen all too regularly outside of the media spotlight, because raptors such as ospreys see wads of fishing line or plastic baling twine as fantastic additions to their nests.

"Unfortunately, to them, it looks like great building material," says Steve Niemela, a wildlife biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Central Point. "They'll actually incorporate it into their nests, where they readily get caught in it.

"Anything that's long and linear and plastic can be pretty detrimental to birds building nests, and now is that time," he says.

That's why Bronson can't walk the banks of the lake without returning with a fistful of garbage.

"This little place is so precious," Bronson says. "It supports so much wildlife. Getting people not to use it improperly is really hard."

Misuse of the Emigrant Creek Wetlands dates back decades. Driving down to the water line and building a campfire while catfish angling was long considered a right of residency.

Over time, the lake bed has become so crisscrossed with driving trails off Old Siskiyou Highway between Emigrant and Sampson creeks that the makeshift paths can appear to be roads.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the land, closed off-road driving there in 1993, and the bureau's Emigrant Lake Resource Management Plan, developed in conjunction with Jackson County parks officials in 1995, dedicated the wetlands for wildlife viewing and angling.

Despite signs declaring bans on off-road driving, firearms use and campfires, the problems persist.

"As you can imagine, full enforcement of this issue will be challenging, as there are so many access points that people have historically used that are not barricaded," county parks Manager Steve Lambert says.

Bronson would like to see the access points blocked — and even a fence that would keep vehicles from traveling off the old dirt highway into the lake bed. Then visitors could park in the gravel lot and walk to the swimming holes, fishing spots and birding vantage points without damaging the wetlands, he says.

"There are a bunch of people who are out here and use it well," Bronson says. "People who are caring for the land. That's perfect."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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