Real collaboration and real progress: the Bear River watershed

Earlier this summer, I spent three days on an inspiring tour of the Bear River watershed, hosted by Open Rivers Fund grantee, Western Native Trout Initiative (WTNI). WNTI is a collaborative partnership of public agencies, conservation-minded organizations, and private individuals focused on protecting 21 species of native trout and char across 12 western states—including the Bonneville cutthroat trout in the Bear River. Our tour looked at 16 projects where in-stream obstructions have blocked fish passage and damaged riparian areas.

Under the leadership of Therese Thompson, WNTI actively engages its partners—we saw this among the representatives of fish and wildlife agencies from four states and three federal agencies who joined our tour. Each site we visited was a model for western collaboration. We saw solutions that were innovative and practical, built by people willing to listen and engage with one another. Nine of the projects we saw received support from the Open Rivers Fund.

The Bear River—after winding through Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho—is the largest source of fresh water for the Great Salt Lake. At 350 miles, it is the longest North American river that does not make it to an ocean. A thin, green ribbon through mostly dry terrain, it can be surprisingly lush.

To access their irrigation water, ranchers sometimes use gravel and other heavy materials to build temporary dams across the river and its tributaries. The dams raise the river, directing water to irrigation ditches used to grow forage for livestock. These dams block passage for Bonneville cutthroat trout and other species and change river dynamics in important ways. But they are also troublesome for ranchers: push-up dams are inefficient, sometimes costly, and labor-intensive each spring and fall (the dams usually must be removed before heavy rainfall or snow events).

Two sites visited on our tour offer a glimpse at how river restoration in the watershed is occurring.

Stauffer Creek Ranch

Bear River: Stauffer Creek Ranch, outside of Montpellier, Idaho

At Stauffer Creek Ranch, outside of Montpellier, Idaho, a stream that once meandered through a 170-acre portion of the ranch was long ago channelized into a straight path to make it easier to move cattle and vehicles. A downstream dam was installed in the 1940s to flood irrigate the land each spring.

Rancher Sean Bartschi is the fourth generation of his family to work the ranch; Stauffer Creek was named for his great grandfather. He is proud of the family’s ranching tradition. But he is also willing to acknowledge ways to improve upon past land management practices. Through a close collaboration with Trout Unlimited (TU), the creek is meandering again, spreading moisture across the entire field, and producing nutritious forage without springtime flood irrigation. Eliminating flood irrigation means the dam can come out next year, restoring the riparian habitat and opening 19 miles of upstream habitat for cutthroats and other fish species.

S.P. Ditch

At the S.P. Ditch outside Evanston, Wyoming, a new natural-design, cross-vane structure and headgate allows rancher Shaun Sims, to avoid the significant hassle of building a dam across the river every year. He is thrilled that his new system held up in the heavy water year of 2019.

Bear River: S.P Ditch in Wyoming has new cross-vane structure and headgate

He shared his perspectives on the river and what he’s learned, describing the snowball effects of attempting to stop erosion with riprap. He said the strategy can work for a while, but often shoots current to the other bank, where another rancher must install riprap to stop erosion there. Pretty quickly, the natural flow of the river is gone. Shaun has been talking up the work done on his ranch, and his neighbor directly across the river is now making changes as well. Combined, the two projects open fish access to significant stretches of river.

Leadership Builds Momentum

Progress is built ranch by ranch. One agency official described Jim DeRito, who coordinates TU’s fisheries restoration work along the Bear River, as key in the process. State and federal officials can be stretched thin and don’t often have time for meetings, but when Jim DeRito offers time over coffee, ranchers take him up on the invitation.

Not long ago, there were two dozen dams on the main stem of the Bear River—all of them impeding fish passage and damaging the river’s health. With work already done, and work in progress, half of those dams will be removed. That’s real progress on a watershed scale, and I’m grateful to have had the chance to see it up close.