The Lemhi River meanders for 60 miles through a big valley in this quiet corner of eastern Idaho before it flows into the Salmon River. Motorists on Idaho Highway 28 might marvel at the wide open spaces and peaceful, bucolic scenes, with sprinklers watering hay fields, cattle grazing and sandhill cranes sounding off in tall-grass meadows.
Here, local ranchers have been working closely with fish experts and conservation professionals for more than 25 years to improve fish habitat for salmon and steelhead, migrating fish that travel more than 800 miles from here to the Pacific Ocean.
Over the last 25 years, Lemhi ranchers have teamed up with state and federal agencies to create prime spawning and rearing habitat for these magnificent fish. Major milestones include:
• 130 conservation projects and counting;
• Minimum stream flows for fish passage at L-6, the main Lemhi River diversion;
• Preserving working lands and open space forever—nearly 30,000 acres of prime spawning areas protected via conservation easements;
• Over 50 miles of riparian fencing;
• Restoring water flows to 12 tributary streams, opening up 50-plus miles of spawning habitat for Chinook salmon and 40-plus miles of spawning habitat for steelhead;
• Installing 110-plus fish screens at irrigation diversions to keep juvenile fish in the river;
• Brokering 50-plus water transactions that restored water to tributary streams and the main Lemhi River;
• Dozens of water efficiency projects to save precious water for fish, increase crop yields and reduce labor;
• Replacing 75-plus old irrigation diversions with fish-friendly weirs; and
• All this, while ensuring that working ranches remain working for the local tax base and economy.
Major funding from the Bonneville Power Administration, Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), conservation organizations, Bureau of Reclamation, Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) and many others has been instrumental for conservation projects. At least an estimated $75 million has been invested in conservation projects basin-wide.
Everything starts with the tremendous cooperation between ranchers in the valley and conservation professionals who coordinate projects.
All of the conservation work is voluntary. With 90 percent of the spawning habitat located on private lands, cooperation with landowners is vital.
Leadore rancher Merrill Beyeler was an early adopter, signing a large conservation easement with the Nature Conservancy in 2010 to protect fish habitat and keep the 2,300-acre family ranch in production as a working ranch.
“Things that people would have thought 10-15 years ago, impossible, no way it could be done, have been done,” Beyeler says. “Look back to 2010, there was some talk, people were rolling their eyes, how could you possibly reconnect the tributaries to the Lemhi, when the water for those tributaries is essential for ag? And we found a path. And we have not compromised agriculture.”
That’s been a key guiding principle of the Lemhi conservation work since day one. Work to improve fish habitat must also enhance the ranch.
“That’s how we approach all of our projects. It needs to benefit both,” notes Jeff Diluccia, a fish biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Salmon. “Using that approach is multiple, sustainable use, whereas ag is key to this valley, so we have to protect those interests. We can make it work for both, we’ve seen that time and time again.”
They titled the project, Model Watershed. They set a high bar, and the ethic continues to this day under the leadership of Daniel Bertram with the Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Project. Twenty-one agency partners are part of the team.
“It’s a real testament to the partnerships that have been forged in the Lemhi Watershed,” says David Kaplowe, who oversees Idaho and Montana fish habitat projects for the Bonneville Power Administration. “They really earned the trust and respect of the landowners, to ensure they have that trust and buy-in to plan and implement such large, impactful projects that benefit fish and wildlife.”
The Idaho Water Resource Board has acquired minimum flows for fish. “I’ve been chased by little old ladies with brooms when I’m telling them I’m taking their water, and threatened to be shot once, but nothing’s ever happened,” says Rick Sager, Lemhi River watermaster.
Idaho Fish and Game’s screen shop ensures that the major diversions are screened to keep fish in the river. IDFG has installed more than 110 fish screens basin-wide. And the Bureau of Reclamation has replaced many old irrigation diversions with fish-friendly diversions to boost fish survival.
Water-conservation projects in the Lemhi Basin also help save precious drops of water.
“Water is definitely the lifeblood of our watershed here,” says Rosana Rieth, district conservationist for the NRCS in Lemhi County. More efficient sprinklers can reduce water consumption by up to 60 percent, among other possibilities. Many local ranchers have tapped into NRCS programs to save water and increase yields, she said.
“When you look at the projects we’ve done over the years, that cumulative effect is pretty impressive,” Rieth says. “It increases yields, which equates to higher land values, and overall better sustainability of their working lands.” — Steve Stuebner, Life on the Range
(Steve Stuebner is the writer and producer of Life on the Range, a public education project sponsored by the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission. To see the full story and video, go to idrange.org/life-on-the-range.)