Salmon: A fish that, in many ways, is more than a fish. How else to explain this creature that has such a powerful place in Idaho history. Just the mention of salmon runs brings to mind Native American tribes, Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Trail. We wish we could see the days when salmon could be found in the Boise, the Owyhee, the Middle Snake rivers. And we are still inspired by the salmon that return, despite daunting odds, to reach their spawning grounds in Idaho year after year.
And yet: Salmon can also be viewed as controversial, as a fish taking vital from farms and ranches. A fish with the power to ruin rural economies and put people out of business.
The Nature Conservancy is working with partners, ranchers and others in the Salmon River Valleys on a new version of the old "fish versus farms" story. Our projects balance the needs of the fish with the needs of ranchers.
The tributaries of the Salmon River--such as the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi--are located in central Idaho. It's an area known for huge wilderness and vast public lands.
But salmon return to spawn in rivers that run through agricultural valleys.
Working with ranchers to keep their ranches in production while also protecting key habitat for salmon--as well as other native fish like steelhead, bull trout and cutthroat trout--offers a story of hope rather a story of division.
In the Pahsimeroi River, the Conservancy purchased the Moen Ranch, located on a stretch of river that contains as many as 40% of the salmon spawning areas of the entire river. The Conservancy sold the river corridor to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, which will manage it as a public fishing and recreation area. The remainder of the ranch is being sold to an organic beef rancher (pictured above), who will protect salmon habitat as well as wildlife habitat in the sagebrush and upland habitat on the ranch's grazing allotments.
The Conservancy also worked with partners to remove a key fish barrier on the Pahsimeroi River, allowing salmon to reach the Big Springs Creek tributary for the first time in 60 years. And what will the fish find when they get there? The habitat will be restored, particularly on an easement on the Big Springs Creek Ranch, owned by Beartooth Capital Partners, an investment partnership that specializes in acquiring and restoring ecologically important lands. The first year after the barrier was removed, 60 fish returned. Welcome home, salmon!
The Lemhi River is vitally important for salmon and other migratory fish, but they could often not reach their spawning habitat due to ranchers needing to divert water for irrigation. Beyond an irrigation diversion called L-6, the water stopped flowing in the Lemhi, effectively drying the riverbed and cutting off fish migration. On this river, the Conservancy and the Idaho Department of Water Resources will partner with willing landowners to purchase permanent water conservation agreements to ensure enough water flows over irrigation diversions so that fish can pass through on their way to spawning areas. When water is not needed to maintain flows, the rancher can still use the water.
Last year, the Conservancy also worked with valley landowner Merrill Beyeler on a ranch exchange, which resulted in two conservation easements protecting more than 2375 acres. The project will reconnect tributary streams and ensure more water in the Lemhi for salmon.
With your support we can continue to protect places salmon will die for, while ensuring that working farmers and ranchers still have the water they need for their operations.