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Lemhi ranchers restore fish habitat

Lemhi ranchers restore fish habitat

LEMHI COUNTY, Idaho - The largest chinook salmon run in decades recently wrapped up in the Lemhi River Valley.

Several ranchers, landowners and agencies have all been working together to make the valley a better habitat for spawning fish.

Three years ago, rancher Merrill Beyeler decided to pump water from the Lemhi River rather than Big Timber Creek.

"Over a hundred years, maybe 150 years, there was no water in Big Timber Creek at this time of the year," said Beyeler.

Now, that once empty creek provides a cooler spawning habitat. Beyeler estimates the spawning area for salmon in the Lemhi River Valley increased three fold in just a decade.

"One of those fish moved out of Big Timber Creek, down the Lemhi and pinged through every PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) station from here clear to the Pacific Ocean," said Beyeler. "I think that was a great win for not only ranching, but our environment.

Rancher Carl Lufkin manages the Leadore Angus Ranch.

"You know, we really do want to take care of it and stay in business at the same time," said Lufkin. "But, I think they go hand-in-hand."

This year, more than 1,300 Chinook Salmon migrated through the ranch on the Lemhi River. Thanks to public lands, his cattle only graze at the ranch in Winter, when the ground is frozen and the soil is stable. Lufkin said cattle grazing on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land keeps the Lemhi River and Big Springs Creek in better shape for spawning fish.

"They're going to be right here, if we don't have the opportunity to graze up there," said Lufkin.

Linda Price, a field manager for the BLM, said the relationship with private landowners in the Lemhi River Valley is unheard of.

"I've been around the BLM for 25 years, and I have not seen anywhere else the level of cooperation and working together that we have in this area," said Price.

Another rancher, Nikos Monoyios, made a huge contribution. He donated a 5,112-acre conservation easement to the Lemhi Regional Land Trust, with another featuring 2.5 miles of Lemhi riverfront on the way later this year.

Kristin Troy is the executive director of the Lemhi Regional Land Trust.

"Conservation easements can come in two forms: they can be purchased and they can be donated," said Troy. "This particular easement was donated, so it was an incredible gift, really, to the public."

Monoyios also planted 11,000 feet of piping on his Eagle Valley Ranch to provide more water to Bohannon creek, rather than have it sit in a ditch.

"Less water would evaporate and get lost through leaks in the ditch," said Monoyios. "More water would stay in the stream for the fish."

A decade ago, Bohannon Creek was free of spawning fish.

"This year I believe we had over 35 redds, which are spawning spots for steelhead trout on Bohannon Creek," said Monoyios.

There's also the Idaho Fish and Game's Fish Screen Passage and Habitat Program. It keeps salmon and steelhead from getting stuck in ditch systems in the more than 80 diversions on the Lemhi River.

Paddy Murphy, the coordinator for the program, said without the screens, the chinook salmon would have disappeared from the valley decades ago. Thanks to the cooperation of ranchers, the stations are built on their private property, but accessible to be maintained at least five days a week by Idaho Fish and Game.

"The screen program is kind of a cornerstone to some of the habitat, because even if we work on habitat and reconnecting tributaries, if we're losing that production in the drainage ditches its kind of a wash," said Murphy.

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