Ninety percent of the Salmon River watershed of central Idaho is public lands.
Ninety percent of places where salmon spawn—where they lay their eggs and then die, ensuring the next generation of fish—is found on stretches of rivers and streams that flow through private, working ranches.
This is a fact in part born of agricultural necessity: Farms and ranches in Idaho are where the water is. They need the water for their pastures and hay.
At times, though, this also means that salmon can’t reach their spawning streams: All the water has been diverted onto fields, or irrigation structures block the fish’s migration. The Conservancy works on Salmon River tributaries—the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi Rivers, and smaller streams—to ensure that ranchers have the water they need, while also providing sufficient water for salmon and other fish.
This work can take many forms. One example is on the Big Creek Ranch owned by the Page Family. In 2012, The Conservancy acquired a conservation easement on 1,670 acres of the ranch.The agreement ensures adequate water for salmon recovery, helps to reconnect Sulphur Creek to the Pahsimeroi River and improves river and upland habitats. This acquisition is the first phase of a broader effort in the Upper Salmon basin to conserve and redirect water for the benefit of people, fish and wildlife.
“We specifically looked for projects with water rights that we could leverage to make a conservation impact,” says Tom Page, who completed a similar restoration project in Montana.
This legacy project pays tribute to Page’s father, who passed away in 2004. “Thanks to my father’s hard work, his intellect, his timing and his conservation ethic, we have the opportunity to make a lasting difference in country where all the native species are still present.”
Another example is on the Pahsimeroi River, where the Conservancy purchased a ranch in 2004. The goal of this acquisition was not to own, but rather to ensure its future as a working ranch.
Enter ranchers Glenn and Caryl Elzinga, grass-based beef ranchers seeking a property for an organic beef operation. They previously leased land from 16 other landowners, making it nearly impossible to gain organic certification.
They purchased the ranch from the Conservancy with a conservation easement in place, protecting it from development. They also worked with staff to ensure favorable habitat and water conditions for salmon: Nearly 40% of the salmon spawning areas on the Pahsimeroi River are found on the Elzingas’ ranch.
Their Alderspring Beef label markets to consumers who want to know exactly where and how their meat was produced.
“A lot of our customers understand how connected their food is to everything else,” says Elzinga. “They want to see that the beef they buy is connected to healthy land, healthy family, wildlife and clean water. It’s important to them, and it’s important to me.”
The salmon have been returning, and thanks to Conservancy work throughout the river, are able to reach farther upstream than they have in sixty years.
“These fish are part of this place. They’re residents,” says Elzinga. “And if we take care of the habitat, they’ll be back, year after year. I can’t put into words what that means to me.”
November 28, 2012