BPA Funds Idaho Grazing Aquisition to Protect Fish


The conflicts between cattle and Columbia Basin fish and wildlife restoration were removed in at least one Idaho drainage with the announcement this week that the Bonneville Power Administration paid $145,000 to compensate grazing permittees for giving up grazing privileges on 48,000 acres of federal range land.

The BPA and the Northwest Power Planning Council on Tuesday announced consummation of the deal on U.S. Forest Service land along Elk Creek in Bear Valley, Idaho. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribe and Idaho Department of Fish and Game proposed the mitigation project to protect threatened and endangered spring/summer chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout.

"This is a novel approach to protecting salmon, and we're pleased with this project," said Judi Johansen, BPA administrator. "The project promises to deliver on its goal of permanently protecting prime spawning habitat. This project demonstrates what is possible when people work together to develop creative solutions. We recognize this project represents a major change in the way of life for the local rancher, Rollin Baker, and we appreciate his willingness to work with us to make this happen."

"We are very pleased that the Bonneville Power Administration, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and Rollin Baker, the local ranchers have been able to successfully turn an innovative idea into reality," said Dave Rittenhouse, forest supervisor for the Boise National Forest.

"These folks have worked closely together for several years to find a fair way to improve conditions for the several species of threatened and endangered native fish that spawn in the Bear Valley area."

The deal included negotiating a number of ticklish issues involving the elimination of the grazing allotment.

"Everyone gave a little" to produce the negotiated solution, said Rayola Jacobson of the Council's Boise office. She praised Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne for helping coordinate the effort.

Elk Creek provides drainage for the Bear Valley Basin in central Idaho. The area provides spawning and rearing habitat for a major population of endangered native spring chinook salmon as well as threatened steelhead and bull trout. The stream also supports westslope cutthroat trout. Elk Creek has particular significance for chinook salmon recovery. During the past 10 years, it has produced more than one third of the Middle Fork Salmon River's annual population of salmon, according to a BPA press release. The Middle Fork Salmon River contains the only remaining stock of wild spring chinook, unaltered by hatchery supplementation, in the entire Snake River Basin.

Idaho Fish and Game and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe in 1999 proposed the project in which BPA would compensate livestock permittees for retiring or giving up their grazing permits. The Northwest Power Planning Council recommended the project as a high priority for funding. After rigorous review, their Independent Scientific Review Panel said the project "Is an excellent proposal. It emphasizes the protection and passive restoration of habitat and supports its points with data."

With the forfeit of the grazing privileges, the Forest Service can close the area to future grazing. The amount of this compensation was based on a qualified appraisal of the value that the federal grazing permits add to the ranching operations. The land will continue to be held by the federal government.

"The rancher was willing to take the dollars that were offered even though it didn't fully compensate him," Jacobson said. ESA-related permit restrictions have made it more difficult for graziers to make ends meet in recent years, she said.

"It's sad to retire an allotment" that has served as a vegetation management tool, as well as benefited the cattle operations, she said. If the allotments are managed properly they can serve to reduce the risk of wildfire and in many cases benefit fish and wildlife, she added.

"We're really pleased that this came through," said IDFG staff biologist Scott Grunder. Since the spring chinook were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1992, the Forest Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have worked to improve stream banks along the creek long-traveled by grazing cattle.

Grunder said literally thousands of willows had been planted along the roughly 50 creek miles. Measures have been taken to stabilize stream banks and fences and barriers erected to keep cattle away from the streams. Eliminating grazing is welcome, though not a quick fix, Grunder said.

"It's been grazed for probably a century," Grunder said. The Forest Service rated much of the stream bank in poor condition.

"It's going to take a while for things to recover," he said, in the high meadow environment where, at 6,000 feet elevation, the winters are long and cold and the growing season short.

Grunder called the acquisition of grazing privileges "an unconventional approach." It had been discussed previously in the area but officials found little interest among ranchers.

Project proponents hope to build on their success. Grunder said that a second application has been submitted for BPA funding that is aimed at acquiring grazing privileges on 70,000 acres along Bear Valley and Deer creeks.

The IDFG is hopeful of getting the affected permittees to also "agree with this approach," Grunder said.

He called the measure cost effective. ESA mandates have increased the Forest Service's responsibilities and costs, which can't be recouped under the grazing fee structure.

"Because it's federal land, the onus falls on the Forest Service," Grunder said.

"This is an unconventional approach that will work," said Larry Cassidy, chairman of the four-state NWPPC. "It is a very cost-effective investment we are making on behalf of our ratepayers. This project guarantees improvements in this important area."

The project reduces the tremendous costs to both the rancher and the Forest Service of running a cattle operation near sensitive salmon habitats including the costs of mitigation, monitoring and evaluation, and reporting results.

"Livestock grazing is a viable use of range lands on the Boise National Forest," Rittenhouse said. "We believe that we can manage livestock grazing and meet the diversity of resource needs on the forest including improving habitat for threatened and endangered species. However, we are willing to examine future proposals on a case-by-case basis to determine if further application of this approach is appropriate. As was the case with Elk Creek, the willingness of a cooperative permittee is mandatory for this approach to be successful."