A future with more fish: “The Fix” for Idaho

Idaho’s salmon and steelhead populations travel more than 850 miles, through eight different dams to spawn in their natal streams. These are the people making sure they’ve got a home waiting.

Video by Kris Millgate, Tightline Media

Fish are money in Idaho.

Millions. But with dwindling populations of salmon and steelhead, those dollars aren’t nearly as significant as they could be.

A 2005 economic study showed that, if restored, the economic benefit of salmon and steelhead would be $500 million, five times more than it’s present day value.

“We want people to understand how dramatically we can improve fish habitat, and how important it is to do so. There’s a lot of work yet to be done.”
-Cassi Wood, Central Idaho Project Specialist for Trout Unlimited.

On the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River, Trout Unlimited and a host of partners including the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Bonneville Power Administration, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Idaho’s Office of Species Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Simplot Corporation and other landowners, have been working for five years to restore a once-barren river system.

“There’s no way this could be done without this collaborative effort and everyone drawing on each other’s strengths.”
Bart Gamett, U.S. Forest Service

In the 1940’s, the area was dredge mined. The Yankee Fork Gold Dredge was essentially a barge with buckets that excavated the river bottom, turning about seven miles of the Yankee Fork River upside down. In addition, logging to support construction of small towns and feed a timber mill even earlier, around the turn of the 20th century, resulted in a river nearly devoid of trees.

The result was a flume-like, rock-armored river with no meandering channels and no diversity.

The Fix

In 2012, work began to right the wrongs of the past.

Mine tailings were removed. Stagnant ponds were filled. Stream channels were created. New habitat and spawning grounds were created in ways that Nature would have done herself had she the choice.

As part of the restoration effort, crews identified areas where avalanches would have likely occurred historically. Then they simulated the act by “re-creating” the aftermath of an avalanche, providing additional wood and gravel to the bank and stream.

Woody debris was added to stream channels, creating new habitat, holding cover and natural change to an otherwise homogeneous river.

The benefit?

Early indications show that the effort is paying off. In several instances, adult salmon have moved in and begun spawning in newly created habitat within hours of constructing it.

Yankee Fork salmon and steelhead have one of the longest journeys of any anadromous fish in the United States. Traveling nearly 850 miles from the Pacific Ocean, these fish have to navigate eight dams before making it to their spawning grounds. And it is this last leg that is most critical.

While their migration route to and from the ocean still needs improvement, this effort ensures that once they’ve arrived, there’s a home waiting.

“Fish that have traveled all the way from the ocean are using the habitat we restored as soon as it’s available to them ” Wood said. “This is proof that we can improve the chances of survival of species we depend on.”