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.
People driving through the Lemhi Valley 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.
Even before the fish were protected under the Endangered Species Act in the early 1990s, Lemhi ranchers wanted to do their part to save the fish. They remember scores of salmon spawning in the Lemhi when they were kids.
“I used to go down to catch salmon all the time,” says Don Olson, a Lemhi rancher who’s been involved since the beginning. “It was a big deal when we was kids. We used to come down to this pool here, and the salmon would lodge in here, and man you’d ride ‘em and chase ‘em, and do all kinds of fun stuff.”
Over the last 25 years, Lemhi ranchers have teamed up with state and federal agencies to create primo 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+ miles of spawning habitat for Chinook salmon and 40+ miles of spawning habitat for steelhead.
- Installing 110+ fish screens at irrigation diversions to keep juvenile fish in the river.
- Brokering 50+ 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+ old irrigation diversions with fish-friendly weirs.
- 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, conservation organizations, Bureau of Reclamation, Idaho Fish and Game and many others has been instrumental for the conservation investments. 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 re-connect 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 1. 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 regional 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.”
Ralph Swift set the tone in the early 1990s, when Snake River salmon and steelhead were protected under the Endangered Species Act in the early 1990s. As the head of the Lemhi Soil and Water Conservation District, he encouraged landowners to be proactive to save the fish.
Ed Chaney, a salmon advocate, complimented Lemhi ranchers for being proactive in the Incredible Idaho story. “What you’re seeing on the Lemhi is the beginning of a real grass roots effort, that’s the people who live off the grass, the livestock operators.”
They titled the Lemhi project “Model Watershed.” They set a high bar, and the effort continues to this day under the broader Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Program, coordinated by Daniel Bertram and Governor’s Office of Species Conservation staff in Salmon.
“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.”
History and Context – Salmon and Steelhead face multiple threats to their survival
The Lemhi River is a key tributary of the Salmon River in Idaho. Historically, the Lemhi was known as a one of the most productive spawning streams for Chinook salmon in the Northwest.
“The Lemhi is thought to produce the most chinook in the entire Salmon River Basin – 20,000-30,000 adults coming back to this area historically. Now there’s a few hundred. Very productive,” Diluccia says.
In the 1990s, when Snake River spring/summer chinook and steelhead were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, their numbers were plummeting.
“The once-legendary salmon runs that used to choke Idaho’s rivers in the summertime are plunging toward extinction,” Hemingway said in the Incredible Idaho film. “Anglers used to catch these lunkers by the dozen. At one time, 1700 pairs of chinook salmon spawned in the Lemhi River in the early 1960s. Last year, however, only 23 pairs spawned in the stream. This summer the Lemhi run may be reduced to single digits.”
Eight dams and reservoirs on the Snake and Columbia rivers take their toll on the fish as they move downriver to the sea as juveniles, and then again when they return to ldaho as adults.
The fish face many other threats on their journey back to Idaho –hot summer temperatures, predators, fish harvest and more.
Twenty-five years after the ESA-listing, Snake River salmon and steelhead have bounced back, to some extent, but the number of returning adults is still well below the recovery goal of 2,000 returning adults in the Lemhi Basin.
It’s interesting to note that spawning trends in the Lemhi are tracking very similar to Marsh Creek, the nursery for the pristine Middle Fork of the Salmon River, located in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
In recent years, 100-200 pairs of Chinook salmon returned to spawn in the Lemhi.
For the many people involved in Team Lemhi, they are doing what they can locally to help the fish.
“If we look here at the Lemhi Valley and the Lemhi River, 90 percent of the salmon spawn on private land. Through the Lemhi Regional Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy, we’ve protected 95 percent of the 90 percent in perpetuity,” Beyeler says. “So those lands and that stretch of river and the tributaries that come to it, are permanently protected. They’re going to remain in agriculture but we’re going to be able to provide the right kind of habitat for the salmon that return here to spawn in the Lemhi.”
“The fish have a tremendous challenge ahead of them because of all the obstacles they face in their long journey to get here,” adds Nikos Monoyios, owner of the Eagle Valley Ranch. “What we’re doing here with the help of IDFG is to improve this part of the habitat, we can not save the world, but we will do our part, and hope people will do the same along the way.”
Water – the Glue that holds everything together
Creating minimum stream flows at L-6, the main Lemhi River diversion, was one of the most crucial achievements in the Lemhi River Basin.
The Idaho Water Resource Board secured the minimum stream flows in 2002, after the river was nearly dried up during spawning season in drought years. The minimum flows are 35 cfs for juvenile fish passage in the springtime, and 25 cfs when adult fish return in late summer.
“They’ve spent millions of dollars trying to keep minimum stream flows in here,” says Rick Sager, the Lemhi River watermaster. “They didn’t want any of the ag to be messed with, but they wanted water for the fish. Everybody pretty much worked together.”
The Water Board also has been a vital partner in restoring water flows to six tributary streams via the Water Transactions Program.
Over the last 16 years, the program has secured 415 cubic feet per second of water flow through 50 transactions to benefit fish in the Lemhi Basin. The board’s work results in actual in-stream flow of 73 cfs on the Lemhi River and tributary streams.
Sager has a major balancing act to serve hundreds of irrigators and the fish. But he loves his job.
“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 nothings ever happened,” Sager says with a grin.
Idaho Fish and Game’s screen shop ensures that the major diversions are screened to keep fish in the river. 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 Natural Resources Conservation Service in Lemhi County. “Agriculture in general is the lifeblood of our community. Ag is one of the largest users of surface water and ground water in our community. So therein lies the challenge and the opportunity.”
Switching from flood to pivot irrigation can reduce water consumption from 30 to 60 percent, and improving the efficiency of sprinkler systems can save 10-13 percent, she says. Irrigation pipelines also save water.
Many local ranchers have tapped into NRCS programs to save water and increase yields.
“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.”
Reith, an Idaho native, really enjoys being part of Team Lemhi.
“For all of us, we all have the goals, we all love this place for very similar reasons,” she says. “Our roots run really deep here. Love the landscape, love the people, we love the opportunity it provides for us, we’re all just so invested in it.”
Nikos Monoyios and his wife, Valerie, are major players in the Lemhi conservation effort. They have donated conservation easements on 5,500 acres of their private land to the Lemhi Regional Land Trust to ensure the Eagle Valley Ranch remains open space and a working ranch forever.
“These are voluntary transactions where the landowner gives up a portion of his ownership rights, in essence, the right to develop or subdivide the property, or mining development, gravel pits, etc.,” Monoyios says. “The Land Trust holds the trust in perpetuity, and future owners are bound by these agreements.”
The conservation easements donated by the Eagle Valley Ranch provided a big boost to the Lemhi Regional Land Trust early-on.
“By doing a large conservation easement – still the largest donated easement – it would give them momentum,” he says. “The second thing we wanted to do was set an example. The local land trust has been very active and very productive in getting other landowners to achieve similar objectives.”
More recently, the Lemhi Regional Land Trust inked a big conservation easement with Karl Tyler, preserving 10 miles of fish habitat and 4,682 acres along the Lemhi River. (See Life on the Range story, “Tyler Family inks conservation easement)
“To date, we have 14 conservation easements, a little over 14,000 acres are conserved, and originally over half of those were donated conservation easements, which harkens to the confidence that our landowners have in conservation in the valley,” says Jennifer Smith, executive director of the Lemhi Regional Land Trust.
“People here in this valley are special. They care about these lands. They’re connected to these lands. They have a distinct care and stewardship of these lands. They want to see them conserved. They want to see the fish come back. They want to see the cattle working alongside all of the people who live here, too. So it’s a very very special tie for them.”
Younger generations of Lemhi ranchers are also embracing the conservation ethic. Thane Kauer with McFarland Livestock saved 5 cfs on Hawley Creek, a Lemhi tributary stream, by converting an old open irrigation ditch to a buried pipeline. He also modernized his irrigation diversion, eliminated pumping costs by converting to a gravity system and increased crop yields, too.
“I think it’s better,” Kauer says of his new irrigation system. “This system is cleaner, easier to run. All around more efficient for sure.”
“I think it’s important to work together for the whole river ecosystem,” he says. “We make little changes with each one of these projects, but in the long run, it’s going to have a bigger effect down the stream for years to come.”
Most recently, Nikos Monoyios provided 2.5 miles of Lemhi River bottom lands to Idaho Fish and Game to restore a more natural river system and create more summer rearing and over-wintering habitat for juvenile salmon and steelhead.
“This project in particular is in an area we’ve identified as being very important for winter survival for salmon and steelhead and to build habitat capacity,” says DiLuccia of IDFG. “We’re trying to build different treatments in to try to increase survival, and get as many fish out to the ocean as we can.”
With design professionals, Diluccia re-engineered the course of the Lemhi River to slow it down, provide more natural curves and meanders in the stream and cold, deep-water habitat, to create more ideal over-wintering habitat for salmon, steelhead and resident fish.
Historically, the river had been straightened to make room for the railroad and highway.
Research showed that creating better over-wintering habitat for fish was vital in the lower Lemhi Basin for increasing juvenile fish survival. In straightened sections of the stream, over-wintering survival ran only 10 percent, compared to a potential of 60 percent.
“We feel like we’re going to be good stewards of the land for 20-30-40 years, whatever the good lord gives us, we will do our best to take care of it while we own it, and leave it in better condition than we found it for future generations,” Monoyios says.
Team Lemhi works on about 10 to 15 projects a year in coordination with the Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Project. Twenty-one state, federal and local agencies have a seat at the table.
And it’s not all just about salmon, steelhead and resident fish. Some projects also improve habitat for sage grouse, songbirds and other wildlife species.
Conservation projects also have been creating new jobs for local contractors and jobs for Salmon teen-agers engaged in the Lemhi Youth Employment Program.
It’s important to ranchers to see the conservation work enhancing the community, providing a livable wage for young professionals.
“We wanted to make sure that whatever project, whatever we’re doing, at the end of that, the community would be in a better place,” Beyeler says. “That has built opportunities for young families who wanted to come back to the valley to build businesses that are enhanced by a conservation project and restoration and enhancement projects we do in the valley. That’s been huge for our community.”
Ultimately, the story about Team Lemhi is about community. It’s about relationships. Building trust. There’s a strong culture of trying to make things better for fish, wildlife, the local economy and the community.
Lemhi rancher Bruce Mulkey has spent half of his life on the Model Watershed project. “I’m proud we’ve tried to do something, I don’t know if it’s been successful or not, maybe 100 years from now, we’ll know,” he says. “For as much money as they’ve dumped into it, they could have built a canal all the way to the ocean with sorting gates on it, whatever fish wanted to go where, and just send them.”
“The good part about the whole thing, there’s a pretty good relationship between the agencies and the landowners. Good bunch of people here. I consider a lot of them pretty good friends.”
Mulkey remembers speaking to an American Fisheries Society meeting in Montana a few years ago. He was the only landowner in a room full of hundreds of fish biologists.
“Afterwards, everyone wanted to know, how’d you get that going? I said you guys will go into a community, look around, get to know some people. But go in and try to shove it down their throats, they’re going to run you off, they won’t cooperate at all,” Mulkey says.
“This one is special,” Diluccia says. “Landowner support in general is critical to what we do. This is a voluntary program. Without that participation, we don’t have a project. That’s my biggest message. Thank you to the landowner. It’s their land. They’re still paying taxes. They’re still open and willing to work with us. This one is special.”
Steve Stuebner is the writer and producer of Life on the Range, a public education project sponsored by the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission.