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Improvements Benefit Fisheries; Diverse Groups Make It Happen

by Mark Steele

It was kind of a strange mixture of groups and people touring the Upper Blackfoot River last Thursday, when agency, conservation groups, and ranchers met for the day-long meeting.The Upper Blackfoot Confluence originally started several years ago, according to Keith Allred, to look at selenium issues in Southeast Idaho from phosphate mining activities.

That morphed into the UBC, a conservation partnership with the three mining companies of Agrium, Simplot, and Monsanto, and the conservation groups of Trout Unlimited and the Idaho Conservation League.

Allred, a consultant and mediator and also the democratic candidate for governor in 2010, said he was asked six or eight years ago by the University of Idaho to coordinate efforts and bring together the research and data on selenium that was leaching from old mining operations in some areas and affecting livestock, fisheries, and wildlife.

“That really didn’t go anywhere,” he said, until 2011 when an idea took off that was not nearly as complicated. It was to bring the groups together to do good environmental restoration for other work in the future, including Diamond Creek, Lanes Creek, Sheep Creek, and the Blackfoot River.

“It is a partnership for a common cause,” Monsanto Plant Manager Sheldon Alver said about the alliance of conservation groups and mining companies working with private landowners to benefit resources in the area.

Matt Woodard, project manager for TU for the Upper Blackfoot Confluence effort, lead the tour that included seeing a $150,000 project to protect Yellowstone cutthroat trout through modern diversion dams that turn back fish into the stream while still diverting water in a nearly maintenance-free effort on private property of a major cattle grazing association.

Mark Gamblin, Region 5 supervisor for the Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game, asked if the focus was wildlife benefit and Allred responded that the initial focus was on fisheries, “but that is not hard and fast,”.

The tour group’s first stop was in the middle of the upper valley among grazing cattle, green grass, and a new state-of-the-art diversion and fish screening complex along diamond creek.

The land is owned by the Bear Lake Grazing Company.

The project, with a cost of $150,000 to $175,000, has virtually put a stop to fish loss with its rather unique design and paddle wheel control to backflush fish past a screen intake 40 or 50 yards away from the creek diversion.

Debris, as well as the fish, are both sent back down another pipe to the creek in the efforts by the cowboys, industry, and conservation groups for a common cause.

Woodard said the diversion, fish screens, and bypass wheels will have a 50 to 60 year life with very low maintenance.

Other potential projects included Sheep Creek, which was once a major spawning area for native cutts and is a tributary of lanes creek. Restoring old channels, stream banks, gradients, and other environmental changes will help the fisheries and also the grazing association by having more water in the spring fan out over the valley floor during spring runoff, which is estimated to be 50 cfs.

Allred said rough figures are about $1 million a year being raised for the variety of projects. About $400,000 of that is from industry, along with to do good environmental restoration work over and above what was required.

The notion caught some wind and took off, pulling the parties together and framing up an extensive scope of work.

Trout Unlimited accessed and gathered data that resulted in a “good factual footing for the impact of money we spent,” Allred said about the recommended projects along the upper Blackfoot River.

“We went forward,” he told the group that included representatives from all mining companies, TU, ICL, Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game, IDEQ, BLM, Forest Service, FIsh and Wildlife Service, the Bear Lake Grazing Company, and others.

UBC is now in its second year of being in the field and the tour included water projects in several areas, proposals for projects, and the potential.

The land is owned by the Bear Lake Grazing Company and its many members. Joan Bunderson, managing partners, was comfortable among the group of federal and state agency personnel– groups who are sometimes at odds.

Woodard of TU explained the need, design, and implementation of the modern and more fish friendly diversion headgates and fish screens, noting the effort to replace the older method of diverting diamond creek with boards in the water has resulted” in turning fish back into the creek and still getting good diversion flow.”

The cattle association has a 10 cubic feet a second water right from Diamond Creek until July 1. they split that water out on both sides of the creek and in the past, the result is fish going down the irrigation channels and out onto the land during irrigation.

From industry, along with grants, donations, and federal and state funds, including NRCS ones.

At the heart of the conservation work is efforts to reverse a declining population of native cutthroat trout that once numbered in the thousands that moved up the Blackfoot to its tributaries ever spring to spawn.

While those days are gone for a lot of reasons– more people, overfishing, lower water, higher water temperatures, less oxygen, draught, and impacts from mining– efforts to reverse those declines are no longer just being imagined. The benefits are real. And the fish will thank them.

For more information about these success stories and future projects, contact the Idaho Conservation League, Trout Unlimited, Agrium, Monsanto, J.R. Simplot Company, or members of the Bear Lake Grazing Company.

Originally published in the Caribou County Sun

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