Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Return wood to the Big Wood?

Fishery is focus of Land Trust conservation efforts

Express Staff Writer

This Bellevue log jam is a typical example of how "woody debris" in the Big Wood River creates deep pools conducive to healthy fish habitat. Community Library of Ketchum, Regional History Department, photo "They caught from 20 to 100 pounds of trout per person," the Wood River Times reported on Aug. 2, 1893. This photo of a documented one-hour catch illustrates what the Big Wood River fishery produced before a century of development in the floodplain. The Wood River Land Trust has begun a new campaign of incorporating historic data and research into its efforts to foster greater protection for the key resource in the Wood River Valley.

The Hailey-based Wood River Land Trust is shopping around the valley the first phase of its Big Wood River study, a document designed to promote conservation of the river's ecosystem.

"To best achieve our goals of land protection, (the) Wood River Land Trust is looking at the Big Wood River's fishery as an indicator of the Big Wood River's health," said Kathryn Goldman, the Land Trust's projects coordinator. "We will use this information to direct our efforts over the years to come. By protecting land that ensures a healthy fishery, we make the most of our conservation work and protect additional resources that the communities in the Wood River (Valley) value."

The three-part project is looking at the historic characteristics of the river and man-induced changes since the construction of Magic Reservoir in 1909. In July, the Land Trust released a study that compiled existing data and research in an attempt to identify the factors that most limit the health and productivity of the fishery.

"This report is Phase One of a three-part assessment," Goldman said, giving her presentation to the Blaine County Board of Commissioners last week after an initial visit with the Ketchum officials.

The Land Trust is taking a new look at fisheries data collected in the recent past by biologists, including former U.S. Fish and Game biologist Russ Thurow. Thurow has contributed substantially to the base of knowledge already available about the river, which takes its name from the fact that "woody debris," like downed cottonwood trees, filled the channel from one side of the river to the other.

In Phase Two, the Land Trust plans to compile historical and current information on stream alterations and land uses on the river, and use the information to educate elected officials, community leaders and residents about the effects and locations of these alterations and land uses, Goldman said.

A focus of the project is to improve public understanding of the importance of lateral scour pools created by dead wood, roots and logs that jam the river. The pools provide fish with exceptional habitat for feeding and cover from predators. Trout in the lower reaches of the river may have migrated substantial distances to spawn in the abundant gravel beds of the upper watershed.

As part of the project, the organization is looking to public education as a precursor to possible new legislation that would further enhance floodplain regulations intended to protect the river resource.

"In an ideal world we wouldn't have any development in the floodplain," Goldman said, acknowledging that the reality is that there is substantial developed and platted land in the North County riparian area. Solutions, she said, will prioritize protection of unadulterated areas.

"Areas with cover, that's where the fish like to be," Goldman said. "Areas with cover have eight to 10 times higher densities."

Thurow notes that the Big Wood River has a history of producing large trout weighing more than 5.5 pounds. To illustrate the impact of development on the river's fishery, Goldman shared photographs of historic catches. For example, on a day in 1893 a group of fishermen tallied one hour's catch.

"They caught from 20 to 100 pounds of trout per person," reported the Wood River Times on Aug. 2, 1893.

Looking at the health and productivity of the fisheries, the Land Trust is acting as a "river ambassador," Goldman said. The Land Trust has plans to work in conjunction with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create habitat in a demonstration project intended "to bring back sinuosity to the river."

"Historically, the river has been recognized as a premier wild trout water in Idaho," the Land Trust quotes Thurow in its summary of the project. "As a result of human-induced changes in the drainage, the abundance of wild trout declined."

The Land Trust also points out that changes are associated with residential development in the flooplain, flood control efforts and road building. They include diking, channel relocation, riprap of river banks, mining and removal of woody debris from the channel.

Finding solutions is the ultimate goal of the Land Trust project and the third phase, which the group hopes to implement in the next one to two years.

Following Goldman's presentation, Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael said the commission would be open to suggestions for new legislation that would add protection to river habitat, but she said recommendations should be submitted for county consideration by November. Michael said that way the county could incorporate any new ideas by July 2006, before the end of its subdivision moratorium.

Goldman said the Land Trust will strive to bring its recommendations to the commission as soon as possible.

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