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Trout, Habitat, and Cattle All Benefit from Group Effort on Blackfoot River

Updated: Jun 3, 2019

by Mark Steele

LARRY MICKELSEN of the NRCS prepares to turn on the screen wiper blades that clean the screens. It can be done manually or on a timer.

A group effort of sometimes seemingly strange bedfellows came together recently to promote ecology, fisheries management, river hydrology, and better livestock grazing practices. What they accomplished is a success story for everyone involved.

Kent Allen, who runs a cattle ranch on the Blackfoot River above the Blackfoot Reservoir, joined forces with Trout Unlimited, the Upper Blackfoot Consortium or UBC, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Soda Springs to make significant improvements to protect Yellowstone cutthroat trout, the river hydrology, and the cattle Allen grazes.

The UBC is made up of Monsanto, Agrium, Simplot, Trout Unlimited, and the Idaho Conservation League, and have worked on other conservation projects on the Upper Blackfoot. The companies all have open pit mining operations in the area, some of which have leached selenium into waterways, including the Blackfoot River.

Their short history has been one of action and accomplishment. The Allen ranch project, which was through the Resource Conservation Partners Program, or EQIP, signed the paperwork for the project in the spring of 2016, with work on water systems and structures beginning last fall.

A year later there are state-of-the-art water screens for diversion that will no longer let trout into the ditches, complete with paddles that will scrape the moss and debris off the screens--a chore that was required daily under the old system where boards in the river diverted the water and screens were often plugged, Larry Mickelsen of the NRCS said.

A metal framed and wooden planked catwalk spans the river at the new diversion site. The new cement structure has a permanent fish raceway in two places that will allow fish to move up and downstream year around without impediment.

But the raceway is more than that, Mickelsen said. It allows better hydrology of the system, such as silt and gravel to naturally move through the stretch of the river, and the benefits of less restriction of water flow due to irrigation.

The design, he noted, allows water to flow for irrigation at a constant rate regardless of the water level or fluctuations of the river during the summer, thanks to two intake screens that look like large screened steel cones under the water.

Electricity was run to the units and paddles or wipers can be turned on or programmed to come on and sweep sediment, debris, or moss from the screens as needed. And no fish of any size can get through them.

Wells for watering the livestock away from the river were also put in and troughs with water volumn floats, and even escape ramps for any bird that may get in the water in the rubber-tired trough to walk up and out of, were added.

Solar panels are also automated that track the sun through an oil system that heats up and moves the panels along its daily arc.

The benefit, Mickelsen pointed out, is “livestock can actually do up to 60 percent better drinking from fresh, clean water than from muddy stream water with all that comes with it,” he said of the research supporting cattle away from streams and river for drinking.

River embankment work is still to be done to brush up sharp corners and keep them from eroding.

Such large projects don’t come cheap. UBC put over a half-million dollars into its funding, with the NRCS at about $300,000, plus landowner involvement and Trout Unlimited taking the engineering and construction lead.

UBC totally funded the new structure at Allen’s, and the NRCS helped with the screening, piping, troughs, and other improvements.

Eight water troughs help pull the livestock off the river and were in use by the cattle the day of a recent grazing tour by the Caribou Soil and Water Conservation District.

The solar power provides the power to the pump system, which runs water to the troughs that have floats to shut off the water level when full. Excess water is piped from the trough to the grazing land to keep the troughs from becoming muddy watering sites.

The cattle use the fresh watering troughs and that means they spend less time on the river, giving them better water and less impact on the river.

“It has benefitted the landowner and he was willing to do these things to help improve the fisheries and the river system,” Mickelsen said in crediting Allen in getting involved in the project.

“The whole point of the partnership is to come up with the resources to help the landowner fund it. UBC has been great to work with. Trout Unlimited does a fantastic job,” Mickelsen said in praising the group effort, along with NRCS, to put projects on the ground to make positive impacts upon conservation and natural resources.

“The thing I like about TU is once they get moving, they are all about finishing it,” he said, noting their quick turnaround time and professionalism.

Another project through EQIP was begun in 2013 in Lanes Creek with the Caribou Cattle Company, LLC. The four landowners signed up with the program to assist them in addressing a number of resource concerns on the 1,500 acres of rangeland.

Erosion, concern for the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, excess sediment, and inadequate stock water were all identified as areas that could be addressed. UBC was again a partner in the project that was completed in the spring of 2015.

“They restored every foot of Lanes Creek,” which runs 2.5 miles through the property.

A creek that actually dried up has had water flowing in it the last three years. New culverts were placed, the stream meandered, cut banks stabilized, and Mickelsen and crews even stomped wetlands vegetation along barren banks that took off and can only be described as “amazing” from the before and after photos.

Beaver have moved back in and dry stream banks are lush, green wetlands.

Water troughs--eight of them-- were added and water is taken from the creek through special small self cleaning screening devices that go into pipes to divert the water to the troughs.

“We got to experiment a bit with the new screens, and the landowners love the water troughs off stream,” the conservationist noted.

And some of the best news--22 fish spawning reds were found in one area last year. Numerous juvenile fish were seen in the three-foot reconstructed stream pools through the stretch.

Mickelsen said the Lanes Creek project--at a cost of $300,000 each for the NRCS and UBC--is truly a success story of converting virtually a dried up creek bed to a now-used cutthroat trout spawning ground.

“The goals of the project have been met,” he said in modesty.

Originally published in the Caribou County Sun

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