Rescuing a river system: Several moving parts involved in rehabilitating the upper Blackfoot River
By Jerry Painter
Heavy equipment works to create riffles, shape banks, and add structures to provide cover for fish and other aquatic wildlife on the Blackfoot Rover at the Blackfoot River Wildlife Management Area (Courtesy of Idaho Fish and Game)
Call it a rescue operation.
Our damsels in distress are the upper Blackfoot River system, the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout and the surrounding riparian areas.
This rescue of the upper Blackfoot River system, a huge area deep in the boondocks north of Soda Springs, has been going on for more than a decade and is still not over. Several ongoing projects will ramp up again this spring and summer.
The heroes of this story are many, from conservation groups to mining companies, ranchers, and Idaho Fish and Game biologists.
Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, the Blackfoot Reservoir and the upper Blackfoot River were near-legendary as fisheries. With liberal regulations, anglers remember catching baskets full of trout daily. But by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the liberal bag limits were taking a toll on the cutthroat population. Fish and Game ratcheted down the bag limits and fish populations started to improve. Then the pelicans began to show up in big numbers in the early 2000s. North America’s largest bird keyed in on when the fish would spawn out of the reservoir and up the river to its tributaries. They also worked over the juvenile fish rearing in the river above the reservoir.
“They have a severe impact on the survival of lake-run cutthroat both in the reservoir and when they are coming or leaving to their spawning and rearing habitat through the river corridor,” said Carson Watkins regional fisheries manager for Fish and Game.
In the early 2000s, pelicans established a summer colony on the reservoir. Their presence and success at gobbling up fish exposed another deficiency in the upper river: Degraded habitat on the tributaries.
“One of the reasons why pelicans are super effective on the upper part of the river is it has been down cut, and we’ve lost a lot of that overhead cover because of water turbulence and lack of willows,” Watkins said.
With no cover or places to hide, juvenile fish were sitting ducks for predators. Adult trout coming and going from the reservoir upstream to spawn were also being picked off. Spawning habitat in the streams feeding the river was degraded from 100 years of poor cattle grazing practices. Another contributor to trout mortality was diversion canals for irrigators sending trout on a one-way trip into a pasture.
With so many issues needing attention at once, groups stepped forward to help. The Upper Blackfoot Confluence is a group composed of representatives from Trout Unlimited, the Idaho Conservation League, and three mining companies, Simplot, Nutrien and Bayer. The Upper Blackfoot Confluence, financed by the mining companies, helped ranchers set up easy-to-operate screening systems to keep fish out of diversions and worked to rehabilitate creeks – most flowing through private land – and make them attractive again for spawning trout.
“On the upper end of Sheep Creek (a Blackfoot River tributary) we did a pretty active restoration where we brought back in a whole bunch of natural willows and revegetated the creek and built a whole bunch of riffles and pools,” said Matt Woodard, who recently retired from Trout Unlimited. “It wasn’t about a year later that we had spawning fish up in that restored section of the creek.”
Woodard said the group worked with the landowners to move cows off particular sections of the creeks during spawning season.
“That really helped out,” he said. “The results happen pretty quick.”
Fish and Game has also been using its nearby Blackfoot River Wildlife Management Area to conduct an exchange with ranchers. During key spawning and fish rearing times, the management area invites neighboring rancher’s cows on its land, thus keeping them away from spawning streams during sensitive times.
“All in all I think it’s working quite well,” said Dan Keetch of Bear Lake Grazing Company who takes advantage of the Fish and Game land. “I think it’s a benefit for us as well as a benefit for them.”
Simplot Mining representative Allen Proudy hopes the example will catch on with all the landowners with tributary streams.
“It’s been very positive,” Proudy said. “(The Upper Blackfoot Confluence) has had a fair bit of success working with the ranching community. A number of them have been great partners. I expect it to continue. Folks are interested in what we’re doing.”
Watkins said cows on the land can be compatible if they get the timing right.
“The interesting thing about the Upper Blackfoot basin is that the system co-evolved with large grazing ungulates,” Watkins said. “There was bison on the landscape before cattle. The difference is when and where those bison were distributed when cutthroat were spawning and when they were rearing in different places.”
Besides doing the grazing exchange, Fish and Game is spending $1.5 million to rehabilitate the 6 miles of river along the wildlife management area with heavy reconstruction, rocks and entire trees dropped into the river. At the same time, they are pulling up conifers that are crowding out aspen groves in the uplands surrounding the river.
“(Aspens) are threatened by conifer succession which is natural and normal, but now they are so dominated by conifer that we’re losing our aspen,” said Fish and Game‘s Anna Owsiak. “Aspen is some of the most productive habitat there is to wildlife out there.”
Besides rehab work on streams and riparian areas, Fish and Game is also working to haze pelicans off key stream areas where fish pass through.
“We got really aggressive with pelicans, not managing their numbers but their predation impact,” Watkins said. “Mostly nonlethal techniques that we use to dissuade them from being in a certain place at a certain time. It involves some pyrotechnics, we call them cracker shells, noise deterrents and a lot of human presence.”
Rehabilitation efforts on the upper Blackfoot and hazing of predators seem to be paying off. Watkins said spawning cutthroat out of the reservoir hit a low of 16 fish in the mid-2000s.
“Now we’re in the neighborhood of 1,500 to 2,000 fish ascending the river again,” he said. “This year we’re going to be taking some steps that are going to get that number of adult cutthroat back up even higher.”
Keetch said he believes the dozens of landowners and cattle grazers want to see the upper Blackfoot River system renewed. His family has been tied to the area for “about a hundred years. … I believe my great grandfather and his brothers were out there renting grass clear back in the 1920s.”
“There’s a fair number of people that are cooperating and some of them like to fish,” Keetch said. “They’re hoping to be part of the success story.”
This article originally appeared on Post Register