Restoring an Idaho Gem: The Yankee Fork of the Salmon River

Simplot is part of a collaborative effort to rebuild and improve the habitat for spring and summer  shinook salmon and steelhead in the Salmon River in Custer County, Idaho. The “Yankee Fork Rehabilitation Project” is well underway, with evidence of early success.

The Yankee Fork is one of the major tributaries of the Salmon River in the Upper Salmon sub basin, and was historically an ideal spawning spot for salmon and trout before it was mined for gold. Gold mining started in the area in the late 1800s and became a major contributor to Idaho’s economy. Eventually, a dredge was built and used to extract gold by dredging a six-mile stretch of the river from 1931 to 1952. Much of the land the river flows through is Simplot-owned property.

“Because of the historical mining along the Yankee Fork, the aquatic system needed help to essentially rebuild itself,” said Alan Prouty, vice president for sustainability and regulatory affairs. “That stretch of river is a potential great habitat for the rearing and development of salmon and steelhead.” Indeed, the Yankee Fork was an area identified by federal agencies as a hot spot for helping restore salmon and steelhead runs, but in need of habitat improvement. The Yankee Fork Inter-Disciplinary Team (IDT), formed in 2011 to take on the challenge. Members include Trout Unlimited, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, the Bureau of Reclamation, US Forest Service, Bonneville Power Administration, Idaho Office of Species Conservation, Idaho Department of Fish & Game, Idaho Department of Parks & Recreation, and the J.R. Simplot Company.

Before implementing any work projects, the IDT conducted a habitat conditions assessment, compiled available data, and met with landowners, county officials, Native tribes, and state and federal agencies pertinent to the project. “We have a great interest in helping perform projects that provide significant environmental value,” said Prouty. “We look for opportunities like this where we can partner with different groups to make that happen.”

Despite Mother Nature’s challenges in the form of fires and snow, construction of the first major habitat improvement was completed in fall of 2012. “Pond Series 3 Side Channel” was built to improve the habitat of juvenile Chinook salmon and steelhead, with the ultimate goal to increase fish productivity. Some dredge piles were either removed or reconstructed. A series of small pools and riffles dynamic to the river flow were installed for the juveniles, and large woody structures were incorporated for their cover protection.

The fish took the bait. Early in the spring, adult steelhead returning from the ocean came to lay their eggs in Pond Series 3. The eggs will hatch this summer, the juveniles will rear in the stream for one to three years, then swim to the ocean and repeat the cycle.

“Taking care of the land and having respect for resources is important for Simplot because we use a number of resources from the land, such as mining phosphate ore, grazing cattle, and farming. It’s really important that we care for the land,” said Prouty.

Over the next several years, the IDT will implement more Yankee Fork projects designed to improve fish habitat, and historic, cultural, and aesthetic resources, and to benefit territorial species such as moose and river otters.

“We’re working to protect and enhance these fisheries so that future generations can enjoy them,” said Prouty. “When I look at this project, I see all three of the Simplot pillars coming into play. It’s a winning situation for all involved.”