Merrill Beyeler is a rancher with historical perspective and eyes on the future.
Merrill's place near the town of Leadore, Idaho, population 105, is backstopped by the Beaverhead Mountains of the Continental Divide, the easternmost terminus for migratory Pacific salmon.
"I think about the journey those fish make," Merrill says. "Pretty spectacular. Why do they do that? It's for the next generation. And why do we do what we do? To pass this land to the next generation." By the way, the Beyelers are five generations into their journey and counting.
After negotiating a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy on a newly acquired parcel of his Lemhi Valley ranch in 2010, Merrill turned his attention to making it a healthier piece of the watershed. "I'm as interested in having the salmon here as I am in raising cattle," he says.
Fortunately for the fish, one of the most significant stretches of the Lemhi River ropes past his property. "The majority of spawning Chinook in this river are just up and downstream of it," says biologist Morgan Case of the Idaho Water Resource Board, a partner of the Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program. "And this is a project that may enhance their production by improving the conditions for egg-to-smolt survival."
At the center of the restoration activities is a 20-year agreement that provides for Merrill to consolidate diversions and secure his water from the mainstem of the Lemhi rather than from several of its local tributaries. The net result of these changes boosts Lemhi flows over nearly four miles of this important stretch of the river. Meanwhile, Big Springs Creek, compromised by low flows for decades, has an additional 1.36 cubic feet per second in its lower reach where spawning and rearing habitat are ideal.
Now that four and a half miles of irrigation ditches are no longer needed to convey water, the two creeks they intercepted, Lee and Big Eight Mile, once again connect with the Lemhi River in their lower reaches. Local contractors have re-meandered the channel in Lee Creek and, in an extremely dry 2013, it ran with one to two cubic feet per second of water.
Big Eight Mile Creek is on the state's priority list for good reason. Its 22-mile system sweeps through alluvial fans and deep into the high country of the Lemhi Range where an abundance of bull trout find refuge. With a major migration barrier removed, this high-potential tributary is positioned for a dramatic response from reconnection upstream.
"This project represents some of the most biologically beneficial actions we can do for salmon and steelhead in the basin," says Jeff Diluccia, fisheries biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "It provides watershed connectivity in the face of climate change, so fish can move around and access diverse habitat. And, it improves the quality of existing habitat. It's not often you get both of these in one project."
One of the questions Merrill Beyeler asks when he makes changes on the family ranch is, "Is there a measurable biological outcome?" Like the restoration partners he works with shoulder-to-shoulder, Merrill's vision is generative. "We want our place to have the values that are important to us, including seeing the salmon spawn," he says.