Good partner: U.S. Forest Service

Lee Mabey serves the Caribou-Targhee National Forest as the Henrys Fork Zone Fisheries Biologist.

By Scott Yates

TU can’t achieve its conservation mission without a plethora of support – financial and otherwise – from key project partners.  One of our time-honored and most dependable partners is the United States Forest Service.

I grew up in a Forest Service family living in small towns in Washington and Oregon.  So in very simple terms for me at the time, the agency was the direct source of the food on my table, and the forest lands an endless supply of trails and trout.  I remember tagging along to take provisions to an energetic seasonal ranger manning a strategic fire lookout, and on the way back dapping bait or a small spinner through a pool in a small stream or if it was bigger water, bouncing a drowned hopper six inches below some split shot in a riffle or between boulders.  Fond memories that I revisit whenever I get the chance.

So I guess it makes sense that over the past 17-plus years, some of my most rewarding professional experiences have involved project work with great Forest Service biologists and other natural resource staff.  The Forest Service manages some of the last best trout habitat in the West, and the management of such habitat will be increasingly critical in light of changing weather patterns, shifting hydrology-related decreased snowpack and run-off timing, and the need for large-scale restoration on connected public and private lands.

And just to emphasize the importance of place for an organization and membership that loves to fish, examples of TU-Forest Service partnership work in recent years include a veritable who’s-who list of great Western trout rivers.  Removal of the Spread Creek dam in Wyoming helped reconnect over 45 miles of historic spawning and rearing habitat for Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat to the Upper Snake River.  Melded public and private land restoration work on key South Fork Snake River tributaries like Burns, Pritchard, Conant, McCoy, Rainey, and Palisades Creek has increased Yellowstone cutthroat trout recruitment in one of the last mainstem river strongholds for this iconic Western trout.  Exhaustive fish population inventory work in the Upper Green River Basin has verified and documented some of the last great native Colorado River cutthroat trout habitat in the West.

All of this project work benefits anglers--and in many instances not only raised the profile of critical native trout issues but also created important new partnerships along the way.  National Forest biologists like Jim Capurso, Lee Mabey, Joe Neal, Dave Fogle, Ray Zubik, Bart Gamett, Dean Grover, Mike Riehle, Rod Bonnacker, Rick Henderson, Bruce May, Scott Barndt, Jim Brammer, Paul Cowley, and Gene Shull have patiently worked with TU staff on critical native and wild trout issues, and frankly, should be household names to people who fish for trout in the West, because of the difference they’ve made for some truly special watersheds and landscapes.  Agency leaders on forests like the Bridger-Teton, Caribou-Targhee, and Shoshone, just to name a few, have also aggressively partnered with TU to ensure that project work was funded and completed in an expeditious manner.

Despite dwindling federal budgets and across-the-board agency cutbacks in both staff and program work, native trout project work has expanded and taken hold over the past decade.  Much of this success is due to an emphasis on partnership work by the Forest Service, especially with ground-based conservation organizations like TU that work with private landowners adjacent to national forest lands and help tell a positive story about the importance of restoration to both coldwater fishery resources and sustainable rural communities.

I have yet to take my kids back to the Okanogan National Forest and the rivers and streams where I skipped a lot of rocks, netted sculpin, and hooked, landed, and kept the occasional stringer of fish.  But when I do, I’ve already got in mind a few small streams in the Methow River Basin where I’m going to take them because the habitat is reconnected and restored, and better fisheries exist than when I was a kid, thanks to Forest Service partnerships.  That’s a story that’s worth telling to the next generation.  

Scott Yates is director of TU’s Western Water Project. He lives in Bozeman, MT.

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