What does agriculture have to do with fishing opportunity? Plenty. With so many rivers and streams on private land, the role of the landowner in promoting conservation of our nation’s water and wildlife resources has never been more important. How well ranchers and farmers care for their land and streams can directly affect how good the fishing is for anglers on public rivers, downstream or upstream of their property.
In the arid West, farmers and ranchers understand and value stewardship. Most landowners want to conserve their water, land, and wildlife resources and leave them in better shape for the next generation.
But in some areas, more than a century of aggressive irrigation, grazing and farming practices has taken its toll on rivers and streams. Unrestricted cattle grazing, for instance, can seriously degrade a stream over time, resulting in silted water, eroded banks, and loss of riparian vegetation and stream habitat.
Often, old culverts, dams and water diversion structures act as barriers that fragment habitat and prevent fish from accessing upstream areas. And when water is diverted from streams, trout often follow the diverted flows and become trapped in ditches—a problem called entrainment. No one knows for sure how many wild and native trout are trapped each year in the West’s thousands of miles of irrigation ditches, but the figure is likely in the millions.
TU sees these challenges as a huge opportunity to improve river and stream habitat by working with private landowners.
TU has a long history of partnering with farmers and ranchers on scores of successful stream restoration projects across the country. Such win-win projects can deliver multiple benefits, including more abundant wildlife, modernized irrigation systems, and enhanced land values. For TU members and anglers, these projects make fishing better. Often, TU will work with federal and state resource agencies to bring funding to these projects, while landowners contribute in-kind support, such as labor, materials, or machinery.
Another problem—overgrazing in riparian areas—can be fixed simply. Often, the solution is simply fence cows out of the riparian area and let nature do the rest. To address fish entrainment problems, TU typically installs fish screens on ditch headgates. Barriers such as diversion dams and culverts might be removed or modified with a fish ladder to allow fish passage.
For example, on the Francs Fork of the Greybull River, TU worked with ranch owners to replace an old bridge and double culverts, which posed a fish barrier, with a new bridge that allowed for restoration of the natural stream channel. The restored stretch now allows cutthroat trout access to the upper reaches of Francs Fork, and is part of a larger TU effort to enhance habitat on the Greybull River for native trout.
Watch the TU video Water Partners to see how TU is working with ranchers and farmers on win-win solutions.