Riehle shaped natural world in Sisters

 

Last updated 4/9/2024 at 9:29am

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Mike Riehle is poised to retire after a highly impactful career on Sisters Ranger District.

If you've hiked along Whychus Creek as it rushes down from the mountains in spring, or strolled through the tall grass of Glaze Meadow into swampy terrain, or stepped into the Metolius River to cast a fly line, you've encountered the work of Mike Riehle.

The Sisters Ranger District fish biologist has worked for decades to restore natural habitat, and make the streams of Sisters Country hospitable to native fish populations. He'll quickly tell you that he was one among many who transformed the landscape in this region, but his contributions are singular. His efforts were recognized in February when he received the coveted Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society fishery worker of the year award.

In just a few days, Riehle will retire from the U.S. Forest Service, having left the land he worked on in far better shape than he found it.

Riehle came to Sisters Ranger District in 1988, unknowingly arriving on the cusp of revolutionary change.

"When I first came as a young fish biologist, the creek (Whychus) didn't ever flow in summertime," he recalled.

The creek's primary function was to provide irrigation water to local farm and ranch lands. There was talk of someday restoring bull trout runs to what was then called Squaw Creek, but nobody really thought that was a serious possibility.

"That was a pipe dream back then, because the creek dried up in the summertime," Riehle recalled.

But as the years rolled into the 1990s, and then the 2000s, things changed. Complicated agreements about fish passage around Pelton Round Butte dam were hammered out, and then irrigation ditches were piped, allowing water to be reallocated to the creek. A major interagency effort, which included a lot of work with private landowners, returned Whychus Creek to a free-flowing, more wild state.

That included restoring a natural floodplain, work that Riehle undertook year in and year out, often supervising AmeriCorps volunteers in riparian planting. The last concrete irrigation diversion was removed near Pine Meadow Ranch in 2014, opening 13 miles of spawning and rearing habitat on the creek.

Riehle recalled working with Pine Meadow Ranch owner Dorro Sokol and her daughter Cris Converse to make the dam removal happen.

"It wouldn't have happened without her," Riehle said of Converse. "That was a really rewarding project to work on because of all the (public)-private partnerships we had."

Working with a wide range of partners - from other agencies to tribal representatives, to nonprofits like Deschutes River Conservancy and Deschutes Land Trust, to private landowners - became a hallmark of Riehle's work, which focused mostly on habitat restoration. Central Oregon and Sisters Ranger District pioneered projects that have been replicated in other places in the West. The community buy-in to habitat restoration and restored stream flow played a key role in making projects successful.

"It's common practice now, but I think there's a lot of synergy in Central Oregon," Riehle said.

Riehle takes a lot of satisfaction in noting that the pipe dream of returning salmon and steelhead into Whychus Creek has now come true - though it is still a work in progress.

Salmon and steelhead are starting to spawn in the creek - though at lower numbers than Forest Service goals.

Riehle radio tracked a steelhead up through town.

"He met his demise by having two eagles return his nutrients to the cycle of life," he said.

That story depicts a genuine return to a more natural state in Sisters.

While the work demanded the skills and temperament of a diplomat, Riehle never lost sight of the core passion that brought him into the Forest Service in the first place.

"I always knew I wanted to be a fish biologist, even in grade school," he recalled.

He studied water resources management and biology at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, then undertook graduate school at Idaho State University, where he studied rainbow trout populations in Silver Creek.

"I did a lot of snorkeling in winter," he said.

That's how fish biologists observe fish in their native environs.

After graduate school, he entered the U.S. Forest Service, and came to Central Oregon.

"What drew me to Central Oregon was the bull trout population," he said.

Studying bull trout in the Metolius Basin required a lot of nighttime snorkeling.

Photo provided

Mike Riehle earned the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society fishery worker of the year award.

"That's kind of the best part of the job," he said. "The cool thing about the job here is that I got to do a lot more hands-on stuff. My career kind of spanned the recovery of bull trout in the Metolius Basin."

Riehle leaves big waders to fill - but he notes that Nate Datchler is returning to Sisters to take his place. Datchler shares a similar passion for the work Riehle leaves behind.

He says that he has not made any big decisions about what he'll do in retirement - but it's sure to involve travel and river rafting. He reflected on a long and highly impactful tenure on the Sisters Ranger District:

"It's been a great place to work," he said. "It's been a great opportunity for the restoration of native fish. I kind of feel like I landed in the right place at the right time. I started working for the Forest Service at the right time, and it's been a good run."

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

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Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit www.frontierpartisans.com.

 

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