Here are some of the key events, accomplishments and forces affecting Idaho’s trout, salmon and steelhead resource in 2020. Every year Idaho Trout Unlimited compiles the top ten stories affecting trout, salmon and steelhead in the Gem State. For previous years top ten check out years 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009.
1. Are we making progress on restoring the salmon and steelhead to Idaho’s waters? There are indications that hint at positive movement. Included is the Columbia River Partnership issuing its report in October with an overarching message of urgency that immediate action is needed to address salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin. Also the Idaho Salmon Workgroup ends 2020 issuing a final report
These examples are balanced by the familiar: the Federal dam and hydropower agencies completed their Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Study (EIS) and decided on an alternative to not do anything serious about the dams which are the biggest problem for salmon survival. TheFeds choice of status quo management is analogous to a salmon’s strong homing instinct. And Bonneville Power Administration reverted to form hiring consultant to produce a report arguing that salmon and steelhead from rivers without dams have also experienced declines (it has been debunked https://www.fpc.org/documents/memos/53-20.pdf), implying the dams should not be blamed.
2. Blackfoot River and Reservoir in Southeast Idaho – and the watershed surrounding it – are home to a restoration success story. Since 2011, TU has been working together with the Idaho Conservation League and three phosphate mining companies to reconnect and restore habitat and reduce avian predation to rebuild what was once a robust adfluvial (i.e. lake-migratory) Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout (YCT) population. This year saw the best spawning return numbers in nearly 20 years. More than 1,500 large adult spawners were counted as they made their way from the lake into upstream spawning habitat in the Blackfoot River. As recently as 2006, that number had dipped to fewer than 20 fish. To date, the phosphate companies have contributed almost $2 million dollars to YCT conservation projects in the watershed – money that TU has matched nearly 1:1 with federal and state grant funding. All the hard work appears to be paying off. The person responsible for most of that hard work was Matt Woodard, TU’s longest-tenured western Project Manager. Earlier this year Matt rode off into the sunset of retirement having reconnected and restored over 100 miles of stream for native cutthroat trout in both the Blackfoot and the South Fork Snake rivers. Now Matt is the President of the Snake River Cutthroats Chapter based in Idaho Falls.
3. It seemed more crowded on the stream this year. And here is some evidence. Fishing and hunting license sales in Idaho are up compared to 2019. Through October, last year’s sales totaled 640,000 and this year, to date, is 62,000 higher, a nearly ten percent increase. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spotlight outdoor recreation as one of the few healthiest, safest options for activity, hunting and fishing pursuits have increased.
4. The Lemhi River watershed celebrates nearly 30 years of sustained progress in habitat improvement thanks to cooperative actions of ranchers, government agencies and other organizations. Initiated during the Administration of Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus, a variety of projects have been implemented and is captured in this new video from the Life on the Range series of the Idaho Rangeland Conservation Commission. https://youtu.be/UldrtOnp1n4
As part of the suite of projects in 2020 the River of No Return Chapter of Trout Unlimited completed a project at Indian springs and also installed signs at locations in the valley touting the importance of salmon,steelhead and habitat work across the valley. Trout Unlimited is also restoring habitat complexity along 1.6 miles of Hayden Creek, rebuilding the lower 0.7 miles of Canyon Creek, and implementing a suite of projects to improve juvenile salmon and steelhead rearing habitat in the Lemhi River.
5. Since 2004 TU has been working to restore and reconnect habitat in the Bear River watershed for its unique population of Bonneville Cutthroat Trout (BCT). Interestingly, Bear River BCT are more closely related genetically to Yellowstone Cutthroat than they are to their Bonneville brethren to the south! These fish are highly migratory, using main stem river and lake habitats to feed and grow, then migrating long distances into headwater tributaries to spawn every spring. As such, they depend on intact migration corridors and healthy habitat throughout the watershed.
TU’s Bear River Project Manager, Jim DeRito, and others have worked with project partners to install more than 25 fish screens and to remove at least that many upstream migration barriers (e.g. culverts, diversion dams) in order to restore functioning migration corridors for these fish and it’s really working. In the early 2000’s fewer than 10 percent of the BCT in Bear Lake were wild fish. Without dependable access to spawning tributaries, the Bear Lake BCT population was entirely dependent on hatchery propagation. In 2010, TU completed its first of several tributary reconnection projects, and four years later the percentage of wild fish had increased to 60 percent. These days, anglers report that roughly eight out of every 10 cutthroat caught in the lake are wild fish!
In 2020, working together with PacifiCorp’s Environmental Coordination Committee and its member organizations, TU will implement several more restoration projects on Bear River tributaries, including decommissioning a hydropower plant on Paris Creek that will restore flows and habitat to three miles of this important Bear River tributary.
6. South Fork Snake River. Late November 2020 Idaho Fish and Game reported continued healthy populations on the South Fork Snake River. https://idfg.idaho.gov/press/high-trout-numbers-continue-south-fork-snake-river-0 The South Fork contains the largest population of native Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout of Idaho’s magnificent rivers. This is a result of inherent high productivity of the river system, effective fishing regulations that encourage the catch and release ethic, modern management of river flows in the Upper Snake River system, and in the past couple of decades a number of fish habitat restoration projects. In 2001,Trout Unlimited designated the South Fork Snake a “Home Rivers” and staff and financial resources in habitat projects. TU’s Matt Woodard focused on the South Fork Snake for many years with projects in important spawning tributaries such as Garden Creek, Rainey Creek and Pine Creek.
7. Teton River. It is time to give the Teton River its due. And that of the many groups who have been hard at work improving the aquatic habitat of the Teton River. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council recently featured the efforts at https://www.nwcouncil.org/news/innovative-water-agreement-helping-restore-yellowstone-cutthroat-trout-teton-river noting the rebound of the fishery from its low point in 2003.
8. Tincup Creek in Eastern Idaho, a tributary to the Snake River upstream of Palisades Reservoir, has been the site of a four-year restoration project, completed in 2020. Each year the construction crews, assisted by the Caribou-Targhee National Forest specialists, and Trout Unlimited staff and volunteers from numerous chapters in the area, to advance the restoration work. In fact, volunteers from both Idaho and Wyoming participated seeing as Tincup Creek flows from Idaho into Wyoming, meets the Snake River and flows back into Idaho. More background about the project is at this Forest Service link https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/ctnf/home/?cid=FSEPRD787009 and the Snake River Cutthroats Chapter states, “As this section of the creek stabilizes and Native cutthroat trout re-establish in natural numbers, look for it to become a destination for small stream enthusiasts.”
9. Raising Anderson Ranch Dam and storing more water behind it was the subject of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement released this summer by the Bureau of Reclamation. The additional space created to capture and later release water into the South Fork of the Boise River could have impacts on the function of the river and the wild trout fishery that is southwest Idaho’s premiere stream. The proposal will continue in 2021 towards a decision to pursue the project with the state of Idaho that will cost upwards of $90 million to construct. Several mitigation measures were proposed by Idaho Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited in comments to the Bureau.
10. The pandemic and COVID-19 and its sweeping effects on society also touched the fishing and conservation community. Conservation and education activities have been readjusted to online meetings, or in the case of youth activities such as the Trout Unlimited Trout Camp, were cancelled. Volunteer conservation in the field has been postponed or conducted so volunteers maintain physical distance to prevent spread of the SARS-CoVid2 coronavirus. Let’s hope 2021 brings a return to these important activities that help sustain the future fisheries of Idaho.