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Yelm Creek: The Disappearing Stream
As a tributary to the Nisqually River, Yelm Creek is a small, generally low gradient creek that flows nine miles, from its spring-fed source directly south of Yelm, to its confluence with the Nisqually River. A modest stream, about a foot wide near its beginning in rural farm and pasture land, then flows through the more urban area of town where it disappears during much of the year, lost to a low groundwater table and other factors. Eventually, it emerges again - above ground – where closer to the river it becomes a robust, bountiful stream flowing over boulders, cobbles and gravels, supporting a healthy run of late run winter chum salmon in its final half mile.
Yelm Creek was part of the traditional territory of the Nisqually Indian Tribe. Yelm is a Native American name translated to loosely mean “shimmering heat waves”. Parts of the Yelm Creek watershed were utilized extensively by the Nisqually people for foraging. The central run of Yelm Creek was formerly a prairie habitat, similar to the vestigial prairies still extant on parts of Ft. Lewis. Here, deer and other large game were hunted and snared. Camas grew abundantly in this habitat and was an important starch staple. Camas bulbs were harvested in spring and early summer and steam-baked in pits before drying during winter. Other commodities harvested in the Yelm prairie area included a variety of berries and acorns from native Garry oak. The value of the prairie habitat was such that it was maintained by a practice of occasional burning in order to favor native oaks, keep invasive fir trees from colonizing and to maintain prairie grazing habitat for deer and elk.
The Yelm Creek area also played an important role in early territorial history. During a period of peculiar political limbo in the 1800’s, when this area was disputed by both the British and their proxy- Hudson’s Bay Company - and the United States, early pioneer families traveling the Oregon Trail began to arrive in South Sound, finding Oregon’s Willamette area already overcrowded. In 1845, James Longmire, as part of the first wagon train party to cross to turn north at Walla Walla, traveling up the Yakima River and crossing the Naches River, was the first Euro-American to settle in the Yelm Creek watershed. In his memoir, Longmire explained his decision to homestead on the Yelm Prairie area in a most bucolic way;
“Having received due notice from the Hudson Bay company not to settle on any lands north of the Nisqually River, we crossed the river and went to Yelm prairie, a beautiful spot. I thought as it lay before us covered with tall waving grass, a pretty stream bordered with shrubs and tall trees, flowing through it, and the majestic mountain standing guard over all, in its snowy coat, it was a scene fit for an artist. Herds of deer wandered at leisure through the tall grass.”
Several decades later, an intrepid homesteader named J.C. Conine chose land just beyond the southeastern border of the Yelm prairie area that included a large wooded wetlands complex in the upper Yelm Creek area. Conine described a habitat rife with beaver, elk and deer. He described a beaver dam on Yelm Creek to be, “…eight hundred feet long and taller than a man standing” and was responsible for the creation of much of this wetland…“it took six long years to dismantle the beaver dam.”
To Conine and others, the dam was an impediment to raising livestock such as sheep, cattle and hogs. While beaver dams and the off-channel ponds they create provided ideal coho salmon habitat, storing winter rainfall during dry summer months, Conine and other settlers of the time did not fully understand the value of the beaver dam in creating habitat for healthy salmon runs, especially when salmon were so bountiful.
Yelm Creek’s once rich salmon runs, which historically included steelhead, Chinook, coho and pink salmon, as well as cutthroat trout, saw diminishing returns as the land was altered. Nevertheless, salmon continued to make their way up from lower Yelm Creek and into the prairie reach of the stream until the early 1960’s. According to popular recollection, the odor of decomposing, spawned-out salmon would waft right through downtown Yelm!
Today, the lower half mile of Yelm Creek, still flowing abundantly year round, is essential habitat for a variety of salmon, especially for Nisqually winter chum, a genetically distinct run of chum that is the very last run of salmon that returns to the South Sound, beginning in December and lasting into January.
Thurston County has several water quality monitoring stations on Yelm Creek. Stream Team volunteers monitor two sites for benthic macroinvertebrates (primarily aquatic insects), which are good indicators of the health of the stream: one site is in the upper reach near Morris Rd. where the creek is very small but with a nice riparian zone. The other monitoring site is just above the creek’s confluence with the Nisqually River.
This lower reach supports multiple species of salmon where females dig redds and lay their eggs in cool, tree-shaded beds of gravel. The BIBI (Benthic Index of Biological Integrity) score for the upper site was in the lower range of moderate biological integrity in both 2009 and 2010. Not surprisingly, the lower Yelm Creek site has consistently been the highest scoring site that Stream Team monitors, anywhere throughout the entire county!
Photo Courtesy Wild Fish Conservancy