Summer 2002

The Big Dry

Cows plus drought equals misery for rivers in the West

Top 10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry

1. Bear River -- Utah, Wyoming, Idaho

2. Salmon River -- Idaho

3. Gila River -- New Mexico, Arizona

4. John Day River -- Oregon

5. Owyhee River -- Oregon, Nevada, Idaho

6. Sweetwater River -- Wyoming

7. Big Hole River -- Montana

8. Little Humboldt River -- Nevada

9. Yampa River -- Colorado

10. Kern River -- California

Buyout or Bailout?

A Killing in the Klamath

2002 Cascadia Times

Top 10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry

2 Salmon River - Idaho


Hijacking the salmon

Every spring, high up in the Upper Salmon River basin an entire creek disappears behind a gravel dam. The gravel, scraped from the river bottom by a bulldozer, is pushed up to block the channel. The dam redirects the creek onto an adjacent ranch and through a network of pipes and ditches. Members of three imperiled species - salmon, steelhead, and bull trout - vanish along with the water.

Until it was hijacked, Lake Creek had been flowing down from the White Cloud Peaks in Central Idaho, a vast roadless area.

This scene is often repeated throughout the Upper Salmon River basin, one of the Columbia River's few tributary basins that has escaped significant development, with much of it preserved as wilderness. But that doesn't make it pristine. Ranchers graze on public land throughout the basin -- in wilderness, on National Forest and BLM land, and on private ranches.

In addition to thousands of cows, there are a thousand tiny irrigation dams that provide water for livestock or the crops they eat. Made of gravel, rock, wood and plastic, these irrigation diversions, like the one in Lake Creek, take water right out from under the fish. They trap baby salmon on their way out to the ocean, they block adults on their way back to spawn, they split rivers into isolated segments, and they cause water temperatures to rise to lethal levels.

Historically, the Upper Salmon basin was a prolific producer of salmon, despite the great distance between the ocean and its spawning areas - some of which are 1,000 miles upstream of the Columbia River's mouth. The Salmon River is thought to have produced more than 40 percent of the Columbia River Basin's spring and summer Chinook salmon. As recently as the late 1960's, the Snake's wild salmon and summer steelhead runs exceeded 120,000. But by 1992 the salmon declined to the point where they were listed as a threatened species. In 1997 steelhead were listed, as were bull trout in 1998.

Salmon populations had declined significantly by the mid-20th century before the major post-war spurt in hydropower development. Hydropower was only one cause of the decline, and it came after the decline was already well underway. The role of tiny dams in the salmon's destruction has received scant attention in comparison with the behemoths hundreds of miles downstream on the Snake and the Columbia - yet they can be just as deadly.

In 1956, one study found that 1 million smolts died every year in 250 diversions along 500 miles of the Salmon River. A 1994 study found that more than two-thirds of tiny salmon migrating downstream get swept into diversions. Screens can block fish from entering the diversions, but by 2001, one-fourth of all diversions in the Salmon basin were not screened.

In 1999, Kaz Thea, executive director for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, an environmental group, counted 52 dead steelhead and rainbow trout, and 23 dead bull trout of various ages, in a single a diversion in the Lemhi River basin, which is a tributary to the Salmon River. At the time she was a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Serivce. "The water was shut off in the diversion, and the fish died, despite efforts to rescue them from the ditch," she says.

In October 2000, two environmental groups -- Western Watersheds Project and the Committee for Idaho's High Desert -- sent letters to 150 livestock producers in the Upper Salmon, notifying the producers that they intended to sue for violations of the Endangered Species Act.

"That was deliberately intended to send a shock wave," said Laird Lucas of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, the lawyer who handled the cases. "We've brought six or seven cases, and in not a one has it gone to final judgment. In every case the ranchers are caving in. They are changing their practices before we can get a court order telling them to do it."

Consider the Pahsimeroi River, which drains some 845 square miles. Its valley is mostly under private ownership and heavily irrigated for hay and grazing. All major tributaries to the Pahsimeroi are dewatered in the lower reaches during the irrigation season and are inaccessible to Chinook for spawning. One rancher, Judd Whitworth, siphoned water through an unlined, leaky ditch across several miles of public lands. Water escaped the ditch and ran down a dirt road, according to court papers which said the "grossly excessive and wasteful diversions of water" caused the unlawful killing of bull trout.

Or consider the East Fork Salmon River watershed, where rancher James Bennetts diverts Herd Creek water down an unlined ditch for approximately one-quarter mile until it reaches a hole in the ground, which is covered by a metal grate. Water flows through the grate and into the hole, and then through a buried pipe to his property for irrigation. In 2000, fisheries biologists working for the Western Watersheds Project and the Committee for Idaho's High Desert found dead steelhead in the ditch.

The groups sued Bennetts in 2001 for killing threatened salmon, steelhead, and bull trout by "significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, spawning, rearing, migrating, feeding or sheltering" -- a violation of the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit also claims Bennetts allowed cattle grazing to degrade the river and riparian habitat, denuding streamside vegetation, compacting soil, and causing streambanks to erode.

In the Salmon basin, even the federal government is in the business of despoiling the salmon's critical spawning and rearing habitat. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management operate more than 1,000 diversions, killing the same salmon that these and other federal agencies have been spending billions of dollars to save. Many of these diversions, located within the Salmon-Challis National Forest or on lands managed by the BLM's Challis and Salmon field offices, do not have fish screens.

Western Watersheds and the Committee for Idaho's High Desert sued the two agencies in 2001 for illegally killing endangered species with those diversions. The groups also contend the agencies broke the law by failing to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service on the impacts those diversions have on endangered fish.

This year, Whitworth, Bennetts and the Forest Service each settled their lawsuits. The Forest Service agreed to consult with National Marine Fisheries Service on compliance with the Endangered Species Act, and to evaluate the diversions' effects on salmon and trout. Whitworth and Bennetts agreed to end wasteful diversions and other fish-killing practices. The BLM has yet to settle.

Gail Baer, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service in Salmon, Idaho, said neither agency would comment on the complaint. "It's still in litigation," she said.

"Throughout the West, outmoded irrigation diversions are a major problem for fish," says Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. "Yet the federal agencies have sat on their hands and done nothing, even where the diversions are on public lands. This settlement will force the Forest Service to require diversions to be modernized and ensure that they will not harm threatened fish species."

"We will closely watch what the Forest Service does to require improvements in these diversions," said CIHD director Katie Fite. "ESA requires that the Forest Service ensure that diversions on public lands no longer kill or harm the fish. This means many irrigators will have to spend time and money to improve their operations."

Meanwhile, another group, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, is pressing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare additional protection for bull trout habitat across its range. The Alliance has won a court settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, requiring the agency to designate critical habitat for bull trout across more than 250,000 miles of potential habitat from the Pacific Ocean to the Continental Divide.

"What's good for bull trout will also serve to benefit other salmon species," Thea asys. "Bull trout require the most stringent habitat characteristics and there is much habitat overlap with salmon and steelhead."