Three years ago, Katherine Thompson was out chukar hunting with neighbor and friend, Tom Fliss, who’s a commissioner on the Deer Creek Road District. They were hunting on steep, grassy slopes on the Zumwalt property, upslope from the Salmon River near White Bird. They paused to look at a road culvert on Deer Creek, next to the Salmon River.
“It was undersized and too high for fish to pass,” said Thompson, a fish biologist for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. “And Tom mentioned that he’d observed numerous steelhead trapped in the pool below the culvert during the spring in the past several years. We thought maybe if we could get some grant money, maybe we could address the culvert issue and get steelhead restored to the whole stream. It was one of those chance things to get the ball rolling.”
Soon afterward, serendipity happened. Eileen Rowan, a water quality specialist for the Idaho Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), contacted the Idaho (County) Soil and Water Conservation District to see if they might need some help with any conservation projects. Rowan learned that there was strong interest in replacing multiple culverts on the popular Deer Creek Road to open up historic steelhead-spawning habitat for the oceangoing rainbow trout.
The Deer Creek Road rises nearly a vertical mile from the Salmon River near White Bird to Pittsburg Saddle and then takes a deep plunge for nearly a vertical mile to Pittsburg Landing, a key access point in Hells Canyon for jet boats, float boats, hikers, campers and anglers.
All of the culverts blocked fish passage. They also were undersized and could get plugged easily with debris, threatening the integrity of the road.
Rowan found two sources of grant money to fund the work. The $305,000 project was recently completed in the fall of 2017. It opened up seven miles of spawning habitat for steelhead along the steep Deer Creek grade with five new culverts that were custom-sized to accommodate large storm events and also provide ideal fish passage for steelhead and resident fish.
“Those culverts look awesome,” said Stefanie Hays, who administered the funds for the project for Idaho SWCD. “It’ll be really beneficial for the fish.”
“The project turned out really well,” adds Leon Slichter, chairman of the Idaho SWCD and SWC commissioner. “It’s a high-visibility area that gets a lot of traffic with the vehicles heading in and out of Pittsburg Landing. It’s going to be beneficial for the road district to have proper-sized culverts in there to maintain the integrity of that road. The previous culverts weren’t sized large enough, and they’d plug up with debris and cause washouts along the road.”
“Everything worked out just perfectly,” added Bob Ries, a fisheries biologist for the NMFS in Moscow. “We should have steelhead spawning up there on Deer Creek next spring.”
Slichter and Rowan also point out that the work on Deer Creek Road dovetails nicely with a number of water-quality improvements that were made in the same area with several cattle ranches along the road. The improvements installed best management practices to control runoff from feedlots, off-site livestock watering, improved corrals, riparian fencing and more.
“It seemed like getting the fish back in Deer Creek there matched really well with the cattle BMP projects that had been done up there,” Thompson said. “The grants were a really nice infusion of money to get the fish work done. One of the culverts crosses my driveway. Every day that I drive to work and go by that, it makes me really happy.”
Steelhead begin moving into tributary streams to spawn in the spring, when snowmelt is pouring down the mountains, typically between February and April.
“If you look at steelhead numbers in the Snake River, about half of them come from these tiny little tributary streams, so projects like this are some of the most effective things we can do to get steelhead numbers increased,” said Bob Reis with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Low numbers of adult steelhead returning to Idaho in 2017 also emphasize the importance of restoring habitat, Ries said. The number of steelhead passing by Lower Granite Dam was 68,000 (11,400 wild fish) as of Nov. 27, compared to a 10-year average of 165,000, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Because Snake River steelhead are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, the construction requirements for the culvert installation were very detailed and challenging. The project called for open, arched culverts that were placed on top of concrete bases. The Deer Creek Road Department also had to lay down specific types of rock for base layers and the top layer to make the culvert sections fish-friendly.
It was positive for the Deer Creek Road District to replace the culverts, said Randy Zumwalt, a road district employee who did the installation work.
“They were dang sure due to be replaced. They were rusty and had lots of holes in them. It’ll be a good thing for the long-term integrity of the road,” he said.
Next spring, when the steelhead return to the Salmon River in Idaho from the Pacific Ocean, Thompson is hoping that she’ll see them spawning in Deer Creek. Fish experts estimate that once steelhead return to the stream, they could lay enough eggs to produce approximately 45,000 juvenile fish, 6,750 smolts that might make it to the Pacific Ocean, which might translate to roughly 25-50 pairs of adult steelhead returning to spawn the next generation in Deer Creek.
“If I see a steelhead on my property, I will be over the moon,” Thompson said. “I live 7.5-8 miles up the road. That’d be amazing.”
“This is a classic partnership project where the conservation commission’s professional staff was pivotal to the success of the whole project,” adds Slichter. “Eileen did a great job along with all of the other partners involved in the project. This is how our staff makes voluntary conservation projects shine in the state of Idaho.”
This story originally appeared in “Conservation the Idaho Way”, the monthly newsletter of the Idaho Soil and Water Conservation Commission.