Partners Spawn Ideal Trout Stream
Rancher improves irrigation while aiding trout.
By Lisa Schmidt
The paradox hits like an ice-cold splash in the face on a scorching hot day: Ed Grantier raises cattle, logs timber, irrigates grass hay and has gone to a whole lot of trouble to save some endangered fish.
Grantier’s irrigation system was effective and inexpensive. He owned 18 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water in Poorman Creek – essentially the total flow during the hot, summer growing season – so he had enough water to run a ¼-mile towable pivot on 350 acres and flood another 70 acres.
Only the bull trout suffered.
When Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks fisheries biologist Ron Pierce asked the Lincoln, Mont., rancher to cooperate with several environmental and federal partners to keep water in Poorman Creek, Grantier had little incentive other than his desire to sustain the land and water that had supported him all of his life.
Pierce’s plan to help Grantier use his water more efficiently would leave an average of 14 cfs in the creek and save a lot of hard labor. Pierce worked with Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) engineer Rich Nordquist to design a water-conserving pivot system that would protect the trout.
Grantier ended up with one new pivot and a refurbished old one while his conservation partners gained vital spawning habitat for a species that is listed as threatened on the federal endangered species list.
Ten Pound Swimming Icicle
Bull trout, the largest of Montana’s various trout species, need cold water with a lot of oxygen in it. Temperatures in the 40s and 50s are ideal. Anything over 65 degrees becomes dangerous to the fish.
“Bull trout need clean water, too. A lot of shrubs and wood increase the complexity of their habitat and reduce the temperature,” says Pierce.
“Bull trout – just like grizzlies, cut throat and lynx – need good grass, wide open spaces and clear water. Ranchers need the same stuff,” says Jeff Everett, project manager for Trout Unlimited, one of the conservation partners.
“Bull trout are a rare fish on the landscape. They are an indicator of a healthy and functioning watershed,” Pierce says. “They indicate how well people are being stewards of the land.”
Blackfoot River bull trout travel 70 or 80 miles up the main stem of the river to spawn in tributaries such as Poorman Creek. Groundwater welling up into the creek prevents the eggs from freezing during the winter. The small fry and adults need steep streams with pools and riffles for aeration.
“Upper Poorman Creek is the perfect bull trout stream,” says Everett. “The limiting factor was the flow.”
More specifically, the timing of the flow was a critical limitation. Bull trout begin their migration to spawning tributaries during August and September, just when farmers pull the most water from low streams to irrigate rapidly-growing crops on the hottest days of the year.
Grantier’s new system minimizes that draw by requiring only 3.2 cfs of water from Poorman Creek to water 420 acres. Grantier moved the point of diversion up the creek so the new, 12-inch pipeline relies on gravity to feed the pump. Also, the old, 100 horsepower pump was replaced with a 50 hp pump, reducing the electricity draw during a time of ever-increasing electrical rates.
Use It or Lose It
One of the unusual aspects of the Poorman Creek project comes in the form of a water lease agreement.
Western water law states that a person may own the right to use a specified amount of water from a specified source. If that person does not use the water for 30 years, the right can be rescinded. Many deals to use irrigation water more efficiently and leave the saved water in a creek or river have fallen apart because the irrigator will not risk losing the right to use that water in the future.
Grantier’s water rights are protected by his agreement with Trout Unlimited that clearly states a 15-year, renewable lease that allows Grantier to draw water from Poorman Creek first, leaving the remainder in the creek. Besides leaving water, Grantier agreed to fence cattle out of a portion of the riparian area and plant shrubs and trees to increase shade on the creek.
“This is really an exchange,” Grantier says. “It’s not just tax money going out. They get a product.”
Montana’s five-year drought has hurt all trout populations, including cutthroat, rainbow and bull trout, Everett says. Still, fish conservation groups work to improve streams and rivers. In fact, many members think their efforts are even more important during a drought so limited populations will decline less.
The Poorman Creek project began two years ago, during the latest drought. Pierce and others pooled resources from Trout Unlimited, the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana’s Future Fisheries Program and Congress’s Fisheries Restoration and Irrigation Mitigation Act funds. The project cost approximately $175,000, including Grantier’s donations of labor and equipment.
“This is a good partnership story,” Pierce says.
Montana FW&P biologists plan to monitor increasing bull trout populations in Poorman Creek and the Blackfoot River for several years, yet they have trouble defining success on this project.
They know bull trout have adapted to changing environments since the ice ages and that they were an important source of food for Native Americans and early settlers. They hope to return populations to historical numbers and see the fish migrate to historical tributaries. Only they don’t know what those numbers were.
”We would like to see bull trout throughout the watershed at much higher levels, but we don’t have much historical documentation,” Pierce says.
He would like bull trout to represent 10 to 20 percent of the fish population in the Blackfoot River.
Real success comes when everyone benefits.
“We need to make sure Eddie’s operation is productive and efficient and take care of the fish population at the same time,” Pierce says.
Last Modified: 06/07/2005