Cokeville — “We’re trying to make sure fish can go where they want to go and tie that into irrigation productivity and efficiency,” says Scott Yates of Wyoming Trout Unlimited (TU). While landowners see opportunities for improvements, Yates says the capital isn’t always there to make the desired changes.
Given financial and technical support says Yates, “we can put together these projects where the fish benefit and landowners benefit in terms of modernized infrastructure and water use efficiency.” The projects in Western Wyoming’s Bear River drainage include an irrigation infrastructure component while ensuring the Bonneville cutthroat trout’s ability to complete its historic migration to spawn.
“It’s the only native trout in the Bear River Drainage and they’re highly migratory,” says Warren Colyer of TU. He says the fish, often 18-24 inches long at maturity, winter in the lower reaches of the system where food is more plentiful. In the spring they move upstream to the high country where they spawn. It’s a survivability tactic that allows the eggs to be laid in the country above the harshest spring run-offs. Once the eggs are laid the fish begin their trip back downstream. Presence of a migratory population is unique.
Studies have shown, according to Colyer, that over half of a breeding population can be lost during the Bonneville’s trip back downstream. The fish have been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act more than once over the past few decades, but Yates says his group prefers the route of local partnerships and mutually beneficial projects.
Earlier this decade TU partnered with the Wyoming Game and Fish to place telemetry tags in Bonnevilles in the area to gain a better understanding of the fishes’ life history. What they found is that the fish will migrate up to 50 miles to the higher country for spawning.
To date, says Kirk Dahle of TU, the group has focused its efforts on tributaries with intentions of working along the main stems as relationships in the community gain strength and projects earn the attention of neighboring ranchers.
In the past 25 years, says Yates, the technology surrounding fish screens that separate fish from irrigation water and return them to the main channel has come a long ways. Unlike earlier fish screen models, most in place in the Bear River drainage don’t involve moving parts. A headgate is installed at the point of diversion. Water flows through the screen where trout are separated and carried back to the main stream in a pipe and accompanied by a portion of the flow.
Adjacent to the diversion is a rock weir, or a series of weirs depending on the elevation needed to ensure flows. Instead of a drop multiple feet in height, the system is stair stepped and provides a gradual incline that fish can maneuver in their upstream trek. Yates says the structures are designed with multiple species of various sizes in mind. The Bonnevilles aren’t the only fish in the area that have earned the attention of conservationists.
TU has a long history just across the border in Utah and Idaho where Yates once worked and Colyer and Dahle are headquartered, but their Wyoming projects are more recent. For the Wyoming projects in the Smith’s Fork and Rock Creek drainages, TU has raised over a half a million dollars for project design and the construction and installation associated with the water use and fishery protection infrastructure.
Lowell Clark, who ranches northeast of Cokeville along the Smith’s Fork, used to dam the Coal Creek tributary each spring to push the water out of the channel and across his hay meadows where the return flows run into the Smith’s Fork. With it, he says, came Bonneville trout. “I got tired of seeing fish suffocating on the hay meadows,” says Clark. He looked to Demont Grandy at the local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office and in turn to TU for solutions.
Clark says if he began irrigating prior to the third week in May he’d end up with a significant number of fish on his fields.
The infrastructure associated with the Clark Ranch project, which includes a new diversion and a fish screen, was first used this spring so it’s too soon to see a change in the fish population.
Clark, however, says, “I know from experience. I’ve been on this place for 32 years and I use to see the fish in the ditches and on the fields.” Beyond fish that may suffocate, Clark says their presence on the field made them easy prey for predators like herring and raccoon. “There were no fish in the ditch this year,” he says.
Cleaning the fish screen a couple times a week during irrigation season, says Clark, is a small price for the benefits he sees from the new project.
“Grade Creek was really no more,” says Yates of the historic tributary that made its way across a ranch owned by Jerry Kirk and managed by Ray Carter. The creek was a tributary to the Smith’s Fork, but had been diverted into a dike, onto fields and the runoff sent a couple of different directions. With the loss of the creek came the loss of access to important Bonneville spawning habitat.
In 2007 and 2008 Trout Unlimited worked with the landowners to re-establish the Grade Creek channel and reconnect it with the Smith’s Fork. In doing so, they had to figure out how to keep from disrupting center pivot irrigation in the hay meadow adjacent to Grade Creek’s historic route and above the mainstem Smith’s Fork. The answer arrived in the form of “pivot bridges” that guide the center pivot across the channel during its travels across the field.
The portion of Grade Creek that was entering the dike supplied water for irrigation center pivots. Those pivots are now fed through a diversion off of Grade Creek and arrive at the pivots in a pipeline. Wells were drilled for neighboring ranches that depended upon a portion of the outflows for stock water.
“By transporting that water via pipeline we picked up a little bit of gravity flow so he doesn’t have to run quite as big of a pump,” says Grandy of the center pivots.
Colyer says fish have already been found in the new Grade Creek tributary. Within five days of water reaching Smith’s Fork from the new Grade Creek channel over five species of fish were discovered in the newly restored stream.
West of Kemmerer, neighbors Don Failoni and Truman Julian have also partnered with TU to modify their irrigation infrastructure for the benefit of their native hay meadows and the fish.
“Rock Creek for us is a high priority for the Bonneville,” says Cory Toye of Trout Unlimited. Rock Creek flows into Twin Creek, which later flows into the Bear River. “Last year before we got started on Don Failoni’s ranch there were eight diversions on Rock Creek total. We were able to consolidate a couple of his ditches into one so we left him with three.” After seeing the work on Failoni’s ranch, Julian contacted TU and work began on his portion of Rock Creek this fall.
“Truman had four diversions on his place and we were able to consolidate those into two,” says Toye of the project that’s under construction including two fish screens, water delivery pipe, and a rock weir structure. The final component, gated pipe, will be put in place before Julian begins irrigating next spring.
Unlike work along the Smith’s Fork, says TU’s Toye who has led the partnership work along Rock Creek, “We’re coming in behind a lot of structures, not all landowner created or operated, that have blocked upstream migration. Anecdotal evidence from talking to irrigators show that there were migratory fish making it into this area as little as 15 years ago.” At that time a culvert replacement along the highway also likely stalled fish migration. TU has also partnered with resource agencies and WYDOT to address the passage barriers created by the culvert.
Failoni recently completed his first year of irrigating after installation of the fish screens and new diversions. “Basically with the headgates and everything they put in,” says Failoni, “it’s easier for me to turn on the water.” It also provides a means by which to turn it off. He originally went to the NRCS office to ask about help with headgates, but says he found mutual benefits in the broader partnership with TU. “We wanted the fishery to come back and that’s a side benefit for what our needs were,” he says.
“I haven’t seen strings attached to anything,” says Failoni of working with TU. “Most of these outfits you work with, they want some kind of control, there’s always a bunch of limitations. These guys haven’t demanded those things.”
If there’s any downfall, he jokes that it’s that he can no longer gather his breakfast off of the hayfields. “It’s pretty discouraging, my health isn’t as good now that I haven’t been eating fish off the meadows for breakfast.”
“How about I teach you to catch your breakfast out of the creek,” counters Dahle.
Jennifer Womack is a staff writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at Jennifer@wylr.net.