The Canyon Creek Riparian Restoration Project has been a long-term effort to implement habitat improvement measures that will restore the stream ecosystem and its trout fishery to a resilient and productive status. Collaboration between various interests (see below) began in the late 1970s. The goals of the long-term project are to:
- Enhance and restore the natural riparian and wetland vegetation along upper Canyon Creek.
- Promote biodiversity of fish and wildlife that inhabit the stream and associated riparian habitat.
- Protect and improve the fishery resources available for the recreating public.
Streamside vegetation or “riparian habitats” are critical to the health of streams and an important component of fish and wildlife habitat. A series of fenced “exclosures” have been constructed along Canyon and Mule Creeks to protect riparian vegetation from grazing and trampling by elk and livestock. This protection will allow native plants to grow along stream banks and floodplains, helping the stream to withstand disturbances such as floods and fires, and improving wildlife habitat quality.
The project has been accomplished through the collaboration of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S.D.A. Forest Service/Tonto National Forest, the OW Ranch, and the help of numerous volunteers and the following organizations who continue to donate their time, money and equipment to make the project a success.
- Arizona Flycasters
- Desert Flycasters
- Trout Unlimited Arizona State Council
- Zane Grey Chapter Trout Unlimited
- Payson Flycasters
- Scottsdale Sportsmans Club
- Dame Juliana Anglers
The Arizona Water Protection Fund Commission has funded all or a portion of this project. The views presented are the Grantee’s and do not necessarily represent those of the Commission, the State, or the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Funding for this project was also provided by the Arizona Game and Fish Department Heritage Fund, Wildlife Conservation Fund, Sport Fish Restoration Program, and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service.
What is “riparian?”
In a general sense, the term “riparian” refers to both the vegetation along a stream corridor and the stream itself.
For a more formal definition, the term “riparian” is defined as vegetation, habitats, or ecosystems that are associated with bodies of water (streams or lakes) or are dependent on the existence of perennial, intermittent, or ephemeral surface or water drainage.
Arizona Riparian Council
What is a stream like with vegetation? What is a stream like without vegetation?
Promotes quality stream habitat for fish…
narrow and deep channel; cool and clear water
Creates complex habitats…
that provide food & shelter for a diversity of wildlife
by slowing flood water and trapping fine silt and sand
in mountain valleys like a sponge
Less shade and high water temperatures…
are less suitable for many fish species
less food & shelter for wildlife
stream banks are more susceptible to erosion
less water available for plants & animals
Why do we need to restore?
Historic logging, livestock grazing and heavy recreation use, compounded by damaging floods and wildlife impacts (elk and beaver), have adversely affected riparian habitat along Canyon Creek. As riparian habitat quality was degraded, so in fact was the stream quality and trout fishery. Over many years, habitat quality has slowly improved as a result of management practices such as vehicular barriers and developed campgrounds, fencing to prevent livestock from grazing stream banks, and temporary removals of beaver.
During the summer of 2002, the Rodeo-Chediski wildfire burned through the watershed, causing severe impacts. Post-fire monsoon rains moved mud, fire-killed trees, and even boulders downstream and temporarily destroyed the quality of the stream habitat for fish and other wildlife. The fire burned and killed many trees that provided shade along the stream course, and stream water temperatures increased.
The changes that natural events like floods and fire cause also provide the ingredients for habitat “recovery”. The sediment that floods transport downstream and the nutrients that fires release from burned vegetation create the seed bed and fertilizer for new plants to grow. This growth or “colonization” on bare cobble bars and stream banks is a natural and dynamic process common to all riparian ecosystems.
Since the Rodeo-Chediski fire, the Canyon Creek ecosystem is recovering. Changes are documented using photopoints replicated over years.
Photopoint taken in 2002 post-fire (left) and replicated in 2006 (right).
However, in some areas resident elk have slowed the process because they like to browse on the new growth of riparian plants. So, a series of "elk exclosures” have been constructed to protect riparian vegetation from grazing and browsing. They are a short-term tool (5-10 years) to accelerate the colonization and regeneration of vegetation. Over time, they will be deconstructed and replaced with livestock fence to continue the management practice of keeping livestock out of the riparian or stream zone.
The newest exclosure was funded by Arizona Water Protection Fund and constructed in 2005. The exclosure is 8 feet tall and begins approximately 12-18 inches above ground level to allow small wildlife, such as turkey, deer or coyote, to move through the exclosure. The fence has access points for people hiking or fishing along the stream corridor. At the stream crossing or “watergap” the fence is constructed with a high tension steel cable and rebar swing panels that each weigh approximately 100 lbs. The panels are designed to allow flood flows and debris to be transported downstream without destroying the fence. Large ungulates such as livestock and deer don’t push through because they don’t like the feel of the heavy rebar panel dragging across their back.
Canyon Creek background
Canyon Creek is a spring-fed stream that originates at the base of the Mogollon Rim and flows southeast approximately 30 miles to its confluence with the Salt River in central Arizona. Just downstream from the spring source is the state-operated Canyon Creek Fish Hatchery. The location of this hatchery is no coincidence; in fact, the hatchery relies on the spring water to grow thousands of rainbow trout annually.
Traveling further downstream we find the OW Ranch, an active cattle ranch today. Eventually the stream flows onto the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, where it joins the Salt River, providing water for recreation, agriculture and municipal uses downstream.
The Canyon Creek watershed has a rich history of human habitation and over time has been highly valued for water, wildlife, fisheries, timber, livestock, recreation and aesthetics. In 1993, the upper 5.4 miles of the stream were proposed eligible for inclusion in the nation’s Wild and Scenic River System and classified as Recreational Wild & Scenic. Canyon Creek was found to have outstandingly remarkable wildlife and ecological values. Today, the Arizona Game and Fish Department promotes the area for fishing, hunting and watchable wildlife.
At its origin below the Mogollon Rim, the Canyon Creek area is surrounded by a ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forest. The forest shades the stream corridor, and riparian vegetation is limited here because of competition for sunlight. The stream channel is steep and formed by large boulders and log jams in this area.
As the stream flows down the watershed, past the OW Ranch, it traverses a mountain meadow where the highest diversity of riparian vegetion is found. The stream channel is not as sloped, and historically, beaver created dams along the meadow, which formed pools. Wildllife such as elk, deer and turkey forage in the meadows and riparian habitat along this area.
Riparian vegetation (facultative and obligate wetland species) found along the stream course includes narrow-leafed cottonwood trees (Populas angustifolia), willows (Salix spp.), alder (Alnus oblongifolia), false indigo (Amorpha fruticosa) and box-elder (Acer negundo). These plants have deep-root systems that hold streambanks and floodplains together during floods.
However, native grasses and forbs (“weeds”), sedges (Carex and Cyperus), rushes (Scirpus and Juncus), and other plants like horsetail (Equisetum) play a critical role in narrowing the stream channel. These species have finer root systems that form a dense and more protective layer along stream banks that trap sediments.
Over time, the stream channel may form undercut banks under the root systems, providing cover and habitat for fish and wildlife. Plants like watercress (Nasturtium) form dense mats of floating or emergent vegetation in the stream that are used by young fish for escape cover (below). All types of riparian vegetation support a diverse assemblage of insects and aquatic invertebrates that form the base of the food web in this ecosystem.
Project scientists are monitoring important changes in vegetation inside and outside of the exclosures in the meadow reaches. Those changes include:
- Plant community composition and diversity
- Stream channel width, depth and shape
- Locations of riparian vegetation recovery through photographs
Photopoints are used to document changes in a qualitative way. While they don’t quantify with measurements how much things may be changing, they provide for a quick visual assessment of changes. Following are several photopoints from project monitoring over a 3-year period that illustrate some of the changes we are seeing inside the elk-livestock exclosure.
PHOTOPOINT #CC5-view 3: PHOTOPOINT #CC8-view 3:
Photopoint CC5-View 3 is no longer going to be replicated because vegetation has completely covered the floodplain and there is no longer visibility. See the comparison between 2005 and 2009 below.
If you would like to learn more about those changes, see the project final report for the 3-year monitoring period between 2005 and 2007 (downloads).
The riparian restoration activities are an integral component of fisheries management. As riparian vegetation colonizes floodplains and stream banks, it becomes dense. Stream banks with dense vegetation and roots don’t erode as easily during floods and therefore help focus the movement of water within the stream channel.
When the energy of moving water dissipates along a streambed, it forms a deeper channel with a more diverse pattern of stream habitat features such as pools, runs and riffles. As moving water flows against well-vegetated stream banks, the water can cut under the roots and erode the ground below, creating overhanging banks. This habitat feature is important as cover and shade to fish such as trout. Generally speaking, more complex stream habitats support a greater productivity and biodiversity of aquatic invertebrates and fish.
The fish management goals for Canyon Creek are:
- Recover a naturally reproducing brown trout fishery
- Recover the native fish populations to pre-fire conditions
Fish management history
Over the years, there has been considerable interest in angling and recreational opportunities at Canyon Creek. Canyon Creek was isolated until the late 1970s, when the Forest Service improved access and camping facilities. In 1970, the department built the Canyon Creek Fish Hatchery at the headwaters of Canyon Creek. The hatchery relies on three springs for water and hydroelectric power and produces thousands of catchable rainbow trout annually .
In 1986, the Canyon Creek Aquatic Habitat Improvement Project Operational Plan was developed by the department, Tonto National Forest (TNF), and interested public angling clubs, including Trout Unlimited (TU) and Anglers United (AU). Between 1986 and 1989, an ambitious riparian management strategy was initiated which included building livestock exclosures along the creek, planting cottonwood and willow trees, and constructing 65 in-stream fish habitat structures (log and boulder). Within two years, brown trout reproduction had responded and population densities increased three-fold.
As a result of access improvements and habitat improvement projects that improved the fishery, the public use increased over the years. In 1970, there were 14,000 Recreation Visitor Days (RVDs) reported. By 1985, that had jumped to 66,500, and the Forest Service expected it to double again by the year 2025. This dramatic increase in public use has affected fishing activities as well. In 1981, 6,600 Angler Use Days (AUDs) were spent on Canyon Creek versus 13,400 AUDs in 2001.
Since the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, angler use has been limited due to the temporary loss of the fishery and temporary forest closures as a result of the fire impacts. By 2005, watershed conditions were more stable and stream access was opened to the public once again. The department resumed stocking rainbow trout weekly from April through September in the upper section of Canyon Creek above the OW Bridge.
Fish population status
The last fish survey to be conducted before the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire was in July 1998, and results showed healthy native and sport fish populations in the stream. The species assemblage included 2 natives (speckled dace and desert suckers) and 2 sportfish (brown trout and stocked rainbow trout).
Desert sucker (Catostomus clarki) Speckled dace (Rhinichthys osculus)
Immediately after the fire, a limited number of all species were confirmed still present. However, by the end of the 2002 monsoon season, sedimentation impacts to the stream were so severe that all fish populations were reduced by an estimated 90 percent. Since then, fish populations have rebounded as the stream channel has moved sediment downstream and water quality has improved. Recent fish surveys (June 2003–2007) tell us the native fishes are reproducing and have rebounded successfully. A one-time stocking of 900 rainbow and 500 brown trout was undertaken in April 2005 to augment trout populations. There was no indication of natural reproduction after the fire, until Fall of 2005, when 12 brown trout redds (nests) were first observed in the stream.
By July 2006, hundreds of young fingerling brown and rainbow trout were found throughout Canyon Creek.
Department biologists estimated that 67% of the trout surveyed that year were year 1 age class or “young of the year”. For the first time since the fire, the brown trout population was increasing through natural reproduction and on the road to recovery. In fact, later that fall biologists observed 44 redds, and by summer of 2007, brown trout densities had increased in all reaches of the stream over the 2006 estimates. And most important to the angling community, biologists found more large trout (greater than 16 inches in length) in many reaches of the stream.
Brown trout (Salmo trutta) Rainbow trout (Onchorhynkiss mykiss)
Based on the fish surveys since the fire, we believe that native fish populations are once again sustainable. Brown trout populations continue to increase through natural reproduction and recruitment. With future habitat improvements such as deeper pools, overhanging banks and cooler water temperatures, we expect that brown trout populations will rebound to carrying capacity. Rainbow trout will continue to be stocked for a put-and-take fishery.
To learn more about past fish surveys see downloads for reports.
Current fishing regulations
In 1962 the Arizona Game and Fish Department wanted to provide public access to the upper half of the creek at the OW Ranch. The land along the lower half of the creek was owned at that time by a group of sportsmen. They agreed that if a fly-fishing only regulation were enacted, they would allow public access. As a result, in 1963 a “fly-fishing only” restriction was passed by the AGFD Commission and public access was allowed. Since then, the Forest Service has acquired this land from private ownership.
The department has divided Canyon Creek into two management sections. The upper portion from the springhead to the OW Bridge (1.5 miles) is managed under a “put-and-take” scheme where bi-weekly stockings of rainbow trout (between April and September) maintain the fishery. Four trout of any size can be taken with bait as well as artificial lures and flies.
Between the OW bridge and Fort Apache Indian Reservation (2.8 miles), a “catch-and-release” fishery has been established, where anglers are only allowed to use artificial flies and lures. Anglers practice catch and release for all trout, with an emphasis on large brown trout (greater 14 inches) under a “Blue Ribbon” management concept. To learn more about the history of fish management in Canyon Creek, see the “Saga of Canyon Creek”.
OW Ranch history
The OW Ranch is one of the oldest and most scenic ranches in Arizona. The headquarters are situated along Canyon Creek at the confluence of Mule Creek. The ranch was started in the spring of 1883 and has been operated continuously for the past 124 years.
In the days of open range, the OW was the largest ranch in the entire Pleasant Valley area, ranging from the Mogollon Rim on the north to Pleasant Valley on the south, and from the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation on the east to Haigler Creek on the west. The OW Ranch uses water from creeks to irrigate hay fields and water from Mule Creek Spring to power a hydroelectric generator.
The ranch has been owned for the past 30 years by E.K. Delph (an Arizona native) and his wife Margaret (an Arizonan since 1934). Their interests have been to preserve the historic value of the ranch, improve and enhance the rangeland, and to protect the area from all adverse influences.
When current owners bought the ranch, it had a year-round grazing permit. The Delphs quickly realized a summer permit was more in order for the good of the forest. Livestock have been fenced off from most of Canyon Creek since 1988. For many years Canyon Creek flowed through OW land, and fishing was a unique and remote opportunity.
Historically, the ranch changed hands through several owners. John Adams and his brother were the first Mormon settlers to live in the area. They were followed by Blevens. Eventually, James Ramer put together five separate homesteads to create the OW as we know it today. One of the original homesteads exists today and serves as the ranch manager’s home.
For more history on the area, see “The Crooked Trail to Holbrook” by Leland J. Hanchett Jr.
Project plans, accomplishments and events:
Currently riparian restoration activities are focused on the maintenance of the elk-livestock exclosures that have been constructed to protect vegetation from browsing, grazing and trampling of stream banks along short reaches of Canyon and Mule Creeks. There are a total of 4 exclosures, 2 on Canyon Creek and 2 on Mule Creek that require periodic maintenance. The newest exclosure on Canyon Creek was funded by the Arizona Water Protection Fund and built fall of 2005. After construction, volunteers of all ages from several fishing clubs helped to deconstruct old livestock fencing within the new exclosure.
Fall 2005 volunteer workday
Typically we experience high flow events during the early spring snow melt and the summer monsoon season that cause flood damage to the fence “watergaps” or stream crossings. Older exclosures were constructed so that the fence would break away during high flows to avoid trapping debris and pulling down larger sections of fence. This design requires periodic maintenance. The new “swinging panel” design has greatly reduced watergap maintenance.
Occasionally, dead trees fall on the fence, elk find a way to push under the fence, or floods cause debris flows across the floodplain and pull down the fence.
Constant monitoring and repairs ensure the project will be a success. Volunteers are welcome to help the Department with our monitoring and maintenance activities. Please contact the Department’s Region VI Habitat Program (480-981-9400) for information on future workday events. Announcements will also be posted on this webpage.
Spring 2006 Workday
Spring 2008 Workday
2010 Summer Workdays
In 2001 the first of two elk and livestock exclosures was constructed along Canyon Creek to protect riparian plant species from the negative effects of browsing and grazing by ungulates (elk & livestock). The exclosure replaced an existing livestock exclosure and was designed to prevent elk and livestock from accessing the stream corridor for forage. The exclosure was intended as a short-term “tool” to allow riparian shrubs and trees the opportunity to sprout and grow to a size and density that could sustain a limited amount of browsing by elk. The project was initiated by the Department and the Tonto National Forest.
Since 2001 the Department has monitored positive changes in the amount of riparian vegetation that has grown inside the exclosure. After nine years of elk exclusion there has been sufficient riparian plant growth to merit removal of the elk exclosure fencing. Removing the fence would return access to the stream for recreationists to a more user-friendly state. Two volunteer workdays were conducted in June and July of 2010 to remove the 10’ tall elk exclosure fencing and reconstruct a wildlife friendly livestock fence that would still restrict the access of livestock to the fragile riparian area.
There was an impressive showing of volunteers that came out for both workdays to help the Department, Tonto National Forest and the OW Ranch with the deconstruction project. We had 29 volunteers in June and another 31 in July, whom drove several hundred miles to the remote location to support the project. Volunteers included members of the Desert Flycasters, Arizona Flycasters, Trout Unlimited, Payson Flycasters, a Boy Scout Troop, several other non-affiliated individuals and the OW Ranch manager.
The work crews spent both days cutting down, re-rolling and carrying out the exclosure materials so that they could be re-used at other locations by the Forest Service. The 10’t tall t-posts were removed and replaced with shorter ones, new walk-through gates constructed and the new barbed-wire fence was constructed. The barbed-wire fence was strung according to wildlife friendly design specifications. This reach of the stream is now fully accessible to elk, while still limiting livestock access. The project also helped to improved accessibility for people trying to hike or fish along the stream.
In the future, the department plans to continue stream restoration efforts. Plans are underway with the U.S. Forest Service to install a series of instream habitat features such as clusters of large boulders and log or rootwad overhangs to enhance stream habitat for fish. Restoration plans also include stream bank stabilization measures such as brush revetments or revegetation treatments such as pole plantings of willow, seeding of grasses, or plantings of wetland plant propagules.
As project planning proceeds we will post updates and opportunities for volunteers to get involved on this webpage.
The Ponderosa pine forest, mountain meadows and stream habitats in the Canyon Creek watershed are home to a diverse assemblage of wildlife species. Depending on the time of day and season of your visit, you may be fortunate enough to view a variety of species. While some are common and quite easy to see, others require a little more patience and even some detective work to catch a glimpse of them.
Common species that you may encounter year-round include elk, mule deer, turkey and coyote. Some species such as the black bear and Abert’s squirrel will be hibernating or inactive during the winter months, while other species, such as the wintering bald eagles, will have just arrived and can be spotted regularly near the OW Ranch or OW Hatchery. The attraction for bald eagles is a ready supply of fish to carry them through the winter months. In the early spring, these eagles will migrate north to areas as far away as Alaska to breed.
During the winter riparian vegetation, meadow grasses and forbs are dormant and often snow covered. After the snow melts, you may notice a maze of mounded bare earth snaking randomly across the lightly vegetated ground. These are the tunnels of valley pocket gophers left as they burrowed beneath the snow. Close inspection along the stream among the dense grasses, sedges and rushes may reveal small runways belonging to secretive voles. You have to be quick to get a glimpse of these small rodents as they scurry about on their trails. As the spring progresses into summer, coyotes are often seen hunting for the many small mammals in the meadows along the creek.
Early spring is a busy time along Canyon Creek. As the snow melts and the riparian trees and shrubs begin to form buds and new growth, elk and deer can be found browsing quite regularly on these favorite browse forages. They are especially fond of willow, of which three species are common to the area: the Gooding’s willow, red willow and arroyo willow. Another favorite browse is seedling or sapling Alders. Both elk and deer give birth to their young in the spring, and it is not unusual to see them with their mothers at this time of year.
During the snowmelt-induced spring high flows, the desert suckers, speckled dace and rainbow trout will be spawning. Below and on the water’s surface live numerous aquatic invertebrates: snails, diving beetles, boatmen, water striders, hellgrammites, mayfly, caddisfly and stoneflies, to name a few. These invertebrates are important food for the fish and other animals that inhabit the creek.
Look close and see whats in the casing! The snailcase maker is one of many families of caddisfly commonly found in Canyon Creek.
By May and June, thousands of canyon tree frog tadpoles populate the shallow margins of slower-moving water in Canyon Creek, while the adult can often be spotted quietly perched atop rocks or boulders. The Arizona toad is another resident amphibian often seen in the moist vegetation bordering the creek. Look below the water surface and you may see young of the year fish and tadpoles along the stream margins and hiding in the vegetation from predators.
The terrestrial gartersnake is often encountered while it hunts for small prey like fish and frogs in and out of the water through the warm spring, summer and fall months. A more rare find would be the narrow-headed gartersnake. This species seems to be declining rangewide and is the focus of captive rearing programs and population monitoring studies in Arizona’s high country. The Arizona Game and Fish Department would like to know if you see this species. Be sure to snap a photo and record your location if you do!
As early spring turns into summer, acrobatic violet-green and the tree swallows may be seen dipping and swirling as they forage above the stream corridor. If you look close, you may see them land on one of the many cottonwoods and duck into a cavity to feed their young. This time of year the wildflowers and butterflies are abundant and spectacular!
Another common aerial hunter is the red-tailed hawk, often seen hunting the meadows for small mammals. Belted kingfishers are often seen perched along the creek or flying back and forth patrolling their territory along a similar flight path, often landing on the same perches as they go about their daily routine of foraging, roosting or mating. Other less commonly seen bird species include the Mexican spotted owl, the Northern goshawk, and the Northern pygmy owl and the American dipper. There are far too many migratory songbirds to list, so pack up your binoculars and bird guide and see what you can find!
Summer monsoons can be quite dramatic in this mountain valley. Accompanied by thunder and lightning, the rains often turn into short floods, as the fire-scarred watershed has not fully recovered from the Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002. If you happen to get caught in the rain, after the shower is a great time to view wildlife. The sun’s return often encourages many animals to become active, searching for their next meal. Wildlife often seems to come out of the woods in a flurry of activity.
As summer progresses into fall, the bugle of the bull elk is a common sound echoing across the meadows. You may be lucky enough to see a turkey hen with poults feeding on seeds and insects along the meadows and creek. Fall is a great time to fish for the secretive but voracious predator, the brown trout. And, as the water temperature cools, you may also see brown trout redds or spawning beds in gravelly areas of the stream bed. These are a sure sign that winter is on its way and the cycle begins again.
So on your next visit take some time to look close and you will be amazed at the quiet diversity that surrounds you!