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Ecology and salmon related articles

Salmon Basin Ranchers Making
Wildlife-Friendly Compromises

by John Thompson
Idaho Farm Bureau News, Fall 2003

CHALLIS -- With an established goal of crating more productive farms, streams and watersheds, a group of Salmon River Basin ranchers are cooperating with several state and federal agencies to improve fish and wildlife habitat.

Many ranchers in the Uper Salmon region have discovered that there is no time frame provided to make stream diversions comply with the Endangered Species Act before lawsuits can commence. The EAS provides no safety net for compliance and environmental groups have used the loophole to push several ranch families to the brink of bankruptcy.

Several projects along tributaries to the Salmon River are working to keep fish and water in streams and improve water quality. State and federal officials agree that it's a big success story that couldn't have happened without willing landowners who donated a lot of work, time, ingenuity, and trust.

"Basically it comes down to keeping fish out of irrigation ditches and keeping water in streams," said Mike Larkin, an Idaho Fish and Game biologist. "It's real basic stuff that is going to make a lot of difference."

About 200 diversion structures of various designs have been constructed on state, federal and private land over ther past four years that keep fish out of irrigation channels and still allow landowners to divert water for irrigation. The structures and pumping projects are improving fisheries and farm productivity.

About 200 diversion structures of various designs have been constructed on statde, federal and proivate land over the past four years that keep fish out of irrigation channels and still allow landowners to divert water for irrigation. The sturctures and pumping projects are improving fisheries and farm productivity.

The Salmon River Coalition, a group of landowners and ranchers, was formed in 1999to be an advocate for landowners. The group has raised funds to offset legal costs landowners were incurring in defending themselves against lawsuits primarily from two environmental groups, the Western Watersheds Project and Idaho's Committee for High Deserts.

Jerry Hawkins, president of the Salmon River Coalition explained that landowners had no defense agains t lawsuits alleging agriculutre was cuasing adverse effects on bull trout propulations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA Fisheries, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service) Fishereis Criteria Screens, but have yet to develop fish screening devices that are feasible to use in small streams to keep bull trout out of irrigation diversions.

"Basically, landowners were being sued for not having fish screens when there were no fish screens that were approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for bull trout," Hawkins said. "There was nthinog that we could put into a divesion that would comply with the Endangered Species Act to protect bull trout."

A year later Salmon Basin landowners were still waqiting for an FWS approved fish screening devide the would work in a small strea. At this point Hawkins and Salmon River Coalition board members decided it was time for the group to add consevation to its repertoire.

"I got so mad I just told the state to give me the money and I would go do it myself," Hawkins said. "It's frustrating when you are required to do something under federal law and the federal government cannot provide you with a legal tool to go do it with."

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) employees in the upper Salmon Basin designed some small experimental stream diversion sturctures and Hawkins lobbied the Idaho Office of Species Conservation (OSC), Idaho Fish and Game, and Governor Dirk Kempthorne to support the experimental diversion structures. State officials stepped up and supported awkins' efforts and several projects werre put in place with the approval of NOAA and USFWS.

"The state and many federal agency people have been very supportive and involved," Hawkins said. "Fish and Game, OSC and Governor Kempthorne have been instrumental in helping us move through these issues and letting usknow what to do next. When I get to a problem I can't resolve they go to dealing with it immedieately."

With technical assistance form NRCS and IDFG, the structures were builty by local welders and private contractors. Some were installed by landowners. The experimental structures are much sdimpler and more economical than the large dcrum-type fish screens that are approved by FWS. The experimental strucutres are also easdier to maintain and are not as labor intensive as drum screens since landowners assume this responsibility, Hawkins said.

At Sydney and Karen Dowton's ranch on the banks of the Salmon River near Ellis, a water project is in operation that has dobled the productivity of the ranch, reduced power costes and is improving the health of the river. The Dowtons shoed the new project to about 30 state and federal agency employees during a recent tour.

With Bonneville Power Administration anadromous fish funds administered by ther Custer Soil and Water Conservation District and with help from the NRCS, and IDFG, the dowtons have isntalled a pumping station in the Salmon River to irrigatwe their farm. The pump runs five center pivot irrigation lines and one wheel line. Ellis Creek. Which crosses the Dowton's land before it dumps into the Salmon River, has been fenced. A jack fence has also been built along the Salmon River to keep the cos off the river bank. The pronject has freduced bank erosion along the river and helped keep Ellis Creek flowing throught the summer months. The pumping station is a large diametyerr pipe sunk about 17 feet into the river bank and packed with rip rap. Inside the pump house is a 200 horsepower pump that runs the irrigation system.

"We had some power costs beforee and this as reduced them substantially," Sydney Dowton said. "TYhe production of this ranch has doubled and the power costs are now something we can live with."

Dowton said he has noticed a lot of new willow growth along th river since the project was completed about one year ago.

"With the endangered speciews issues in tyhis area and the loss of public grazing the cows have got to go somewhere ant they are going to be right here on this river," he said. "We wanted to get the river fenced and we have pretyty weell accomplished that now. If you look along here you can see there is a lot of natural healing thast hasw taken place in just one year."

Larkin said MOrgan Creek has traditionally been dewatered during the peak irrigation season and this solution not only helps fish , it protects landowners.

"Jerry (Hawkins) got the irrigators to sit down and come up with a few simple solutions aimed at how we can protect Morgan Creek and how we can protect ourselves," Larkn said. "A bunch of folks from state, federal and private interests got together and wrote a conservation agreement to give irrigators some protection under the Endangered Species Act as long as thos irrigators were doing common sense things to protect fish. Morgan Creek is a good example of that but it wouldn't have happened without willing landowners."

Farther north along the Pahsimeroi River another project is achieving similar results. At Jim Dowton's ranch and with help from Bonneville Power (Administration), a tributary to the Pahsimeroi has been reconnected, a pivot irrigatin system installed and a feedlot has been moved off the river.

"I put in four piovts as part of their program and it really has made a difference in the productivity of the farm," Dowton said. "We are produc ing more hay and it's been a good project. We also reconnected the 4river and we are taking corrals out and moving them off the river so none of our animals are in a confined feed lot."

Larkin said there are 287 miles of streams in the Pahsimeroi basin that are excellent trout habitat. One of the problems is some of the streams are no longer connected to the mainstem Pahsimeroi.

"But that is changing as landowners reconnect the streams," Larkin said. "This is very productive water that grows fish amazingly well."

With help from the Salmon River Coalition and Custer and Lemhi Soil Conservation Districts, dozens of landowners in both Custer and Lemhi counties continue working with state and federal agencies to improve fisheries habitat.

"Our main motivation is to make sure the landowners are still there when the special interst groups go away," Hawkins said. "It's been a community effort and I have learned that there's a lot people are willing to do when the survival of their community is on the line."

Related Pages:
In the same Quarterly publication is a reprint of the President's Opinion
Breaching Snake Dams could Cripple Idaho Economy by Frank Priestley, The Idaho Statesman, 11/13/3

John Thompson
Salmon Basin Ranchers Making Wildlife-Friendly Compromises
Idaho Farm Bureau Quarterly - November 2003

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