Ensuring the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

RMEF: Ensuring the Future of 'Other Wildlife'

Courtesy Sharlotte Hughes
It may not be readily evident, but elk and stream-dwelling fish have more in common than you might think.

Cow elk, trout and salmon all go to great lengths to put themselves in cool and secluded habitat to give birth to their young. Hunter-based conservation groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation sometimes don’t take enough credit for the tremendous benefits their projects provide for salmonids (salmon, trout, chars, freshwater whitefishes, and graylings), but the truth is that elk country conservation often protects or enhances riparian corridors benefitting an incredible array of species, fish very much included. Here are a few examples of how RMEF’s conservation efforts are boosting America’s fisheries:

Habitat enhancement
Bull trout
Sedimentation and high water temperatures factor heavily into fish population declines. Often, RMEF’s habitat enhancement projects improve streambank stability, reducing sedimentation and providing shade to help cool water temperatures, contributing to fish survival. Streambank stabilization efforts may include introduction of logs and branches in the streams that fish can use for cover. RMEF partners on dozens of projects across the country each year to provide alternative or off-channel water sources to minimize the effect of livestock on fragile riparian areas. Habitat projects sometimes include removal or improvement of culverts to maintain or improve stream flows and fish passage while providing more dependable water for elk and other wildlife.

Land Conservation
Permanently protecting land through purchase, exchanges and conservation easements provides habitat protection for both elk and cold water fish. RMEF’s Rock Creek project in Washington, Headwaters of the John Day in Oregon, Wapiti Meadows in Idaho and Ray Creek in Montana alone protected more than 70 “stream miles” of highly valued and often critical fish habitat, aiding at-risk fish such as bull trout, steelhead, westslope cutthroat trout, Yellowstone cutthroat trout and salmon.

Westslope cutthroat trout
Many local populations of bull trout, steelhead and salmon are listed as sensitive, threatened or endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act. This classification means federal and state funds are available to restore these fish populations. Westslope cutthroat trout is a species of concern in Montana, Oregon and Washington. Each of these states is engaged in conservation work for their benefit. Yellowstone cutthroat trout is a species of concern in Idaho; and Idaho has a recovery plan for Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

Steelhead trout
Federal and state recovery plans include both habitat improvement and habitat protection—major priorities for RMEF as well. While RMEF focuses its efforts with elk as the primary beneficiary, its habitat enhancement efforts and land acquisitions are helping achieve recovery for at-risk salmon and trout. More on the four examples mentioned above:

Rock Creek, Washington
The 10,376-acre Rock Creek project, completed in 2011 with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and other partners, protected 38 stream miles. That included Gold Creek, which biologists say is essential for recovery of bull trout in this area. Annual surveys documented an average of 32 redds (nests) used by spawning bull trout on the project lands. Rock Creek and the North Fork of Wenas Creek also support westslope cutthroat trout. Milk Creek provides critical habitat for Chinook salmon. Juvenile Coho and Chinook salmon travel upstream onto the Rock Creek project site seeking rearing habitat. Because the project involves checkerboard ownership of federal and private lands, it actually benefited streams across a far larger area.

Headwaters of the John Day, Oregon
The 13,082-acre Headwaters project that RMEF completed with the US Forest Service in 2013 is not only a godsend for elk migrating between summer and winter range, but is truly a bonanza for salmon and trout. The Headwaters of the John Day River, this area hosts critical habitat for federally listed bull trout, Chinook salmon and steelhead. Guiding funding partners to the site, RMEF Lands Program Manager Bill Richardson was able to point out bull trout busy spawning in a few redds to the amazement of all in attendance. The project conserves 35 stream miles, but once again, due to the checkerboard pattern of federal and private ownership, RMEF’s acquisition also indirectly helps to protect the integrity of over 161 surrounding stream miles. Oregon has established species management units (SMUs) for federally listed species and for state-listed species at risk. The Headwaters portion of the westslope cutthroat trout SMU consists of 17 sub?populations. Redband trout, another state species at risk, can also be found here, which the state has stated it may also include in future management efforts. 

Pacific Lamprey: These eel-like fish deserve special mention in an article about the Headwaters of the John Day because they are a state-listed and culturally important species. The tribes are contributing to pacific lamprey surveys in the John Day River and furnishing reports to help guide recovery of their populations. 

Three adult lamprey
Wapiti Meadow, Idaho
The 128-acre Wapiti Meadow project is the smallest project in this summary, with just .47 stream miles. However, it has a big impact for Chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout. Johnson Creek, which flows through the property, is critical habitat for Chinook salmon, bull trout and steelhead. Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries biologists are mapping Chinook redds in Johnson Creek, including this property, and reports an average of 134 redds for the Creek. According to a baseline analysis prepared for RMEF, 40 percent of steelhead smolt produced in the South Fork of the Salmon River originate from Johnson Creek. 

Ray Creek, Montana 
RMEF’s 988-acre land purchase on Ray Creek near Helena covers 2.24 stream miles. Now under US Forest Service ownership and management, this parcel is of great value to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP), which is actively engaged in managing Ray Creek westslope cutthroat trout. In fact, Ray Creek is a prime source for pure-strain westslope cutthroat trout used in MFWP's efforts to restock at other locations in an effort to save this species.

Many RMEF elk projects benefit fish, and as noted above, can provide a huge boost to conservation efforts for salmon and trout fisheries. 

When RMEF secures public access, hunters look forward to exploring these landscapes, but it is also worth noting that when an access project includes streams and rivers, fishers benefit hugely as well.

Bob Springer
RMEF Program Development Specialist

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