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Ecology and salmon related articles

Building Bridges for Fish

by Staff
BPA Journal, October 2014

For the Luhns of Asotin County, Wash., raising cattle has been nearly a two-decade family venture. Their land, 8,000 acres off the banks of the Snake River, straddles a small, perennial tributary called Tenmile Creek. The creek became a natural border for seasonal grazing on the ranch. While most of the acreage lay to the east of Tenmile, nearly 1,100 acres lay to the west and was used in the spring.

The story might have ended there if not for a unique rainbow trout with a penchant for epic journeys. Their presence didn't concern the ranchers until it became apparent that Tenmile Creek was more than just a corridor for the fish. Surveys from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, funded in part by BPA, confirmed the ranchers' suspicions:

Steelhead weren't simply swimming through Tenmile, they were spawning there. And some of the redds, or nests, were perilously close to a rocky ford used as a water crossing by the Luhns' cattle.

"Just seeing the animals in the creek bed with redds both 10 feet above and below the crossing, you know it's not good," said Levi Luhn, a second generation rancher.

The steelhead is an Endangered Species Act-listed fish in the Columbia Basin. The presence of redds on the creek running through the Luhns' property seemed a sure harbinger of change.

So Luhn turned to the Asotin County Conservation District. Founded in 1940, it facilitates responsible land- management programs designed to increase agricultural and ranching efficiencies while decreasing impacts on available resources, whether environment or energy. Its staff also frequently works as a translator and mediator between ranchers and county, state and federal entities.

"Most people are afraid of regulation, and we act as a buffer between ranchers and government agencies," said Megan Stewart, a program coordinator for the conservation district. "We're totally voluntary and provide ranchers opportunities, as well as technical and financial assistance."

Looking at the Luhn Ranch and Tenmile Creek, it became obvious that the exposure of the creek to the cattle needed to be minimized. Stewart was able to show Luhn how fencing could keep cattle out of most of the creek and provide the rancher some significant benefits. Drawing on BPA funding, the conservation district helped to pay for most of the cost of installing wood barriers along seven miles of Tenmile Creek.

"The fencing prevents cattle from entering the stream and trampling any habitat for fish, as well as keeps waste out of Tenmile itself," said Dawn Boorse, an environmental protection specialist for BPA who works with the conservation district.

It didn't take long for the Luhns to see an improvement in their operations.

"We started using a higher percentage of the pasture," Luhn says, explaining that the cattle would typically graze near the riparian corridor and not throughout the open acres. "We've got more animals in the pasture even as we're seeing decreases in overuse."

The rocky ford, however, remained the access point for most of the Luhns' 300 cow-calf pairs and all of the heavy equipment used in the spring pasture.

To stop crossing the creek at that point was hardly feasible. A bridge would help to resolve issues -- but such a structure would have to span roughly 55 feet to keep it out of the floodplain. That could easily cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"How does the average farmer put in a bridge of this scale on that size of a budget? He can't," Luhn said.

Enter the conservation district once more.

"I use all my tools in the arsenal to make a project work," said Stewart, adding that she leverages monies from multiple sources to reduce the impact and cost-share to landowners. "I use each funding source to make the whole puzzle fit together to have an overall successful project." Among those funding sources, BPA holds a particular importance.

"BPA is one of our best partners because they're flexible and understanding of the challenges we face on the ground," Stewart said. "Without that flexibility, some projects would never happen."

Through ratepayer investment, BPA funds habitat protection and restoration as part of a basin-wide program to mitigate for the impacts of federal dams in the Columbia River Basin on fish and wildlife.

With the bridge constructed, it'll face its first test in the spring of 2015 as 300 cow-calf pairs pass from winter pasture to spring pasture. Below the clacking of hooves on the wood panels, Tenmile Creek will flow unfettered with the steelhead spawning habitat unperturbed.

Building Bridges for Fish
BPA Journal, October 2014

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