Thursday, September 2, 2010

Paradise Revisited on the Lower Salmon River

There is nothing like a multi-day river trip with family and friends to rejuvenate the soul! This year my family and I chose to revisit the Lower Salmon River for a 5-day raft trip, an area I once used to be a raft guide on and now have returned as an HCPC staff member and fan. As a raft guide I always appreciated the beautiful scenery and inviting water, but I never took the time to really think about how the river and its ecosystems were doing. On the surface, it appears to be unaffected by the multiple uses, but once you scratch the surface to learn about the health of the ecosystems you will find it is a fragile place that needs your help for continued protection.

Prior to this float, I had just learned of HCPC’s recent victory in their efforts to protect Bighorn Sheep in Idaho! The Payette National Forest released their decision to close almost 44,000 acres of domestic sheep grazing allotments over the next 3 years. We successfully closed a substantial portion of the Payette NF to domestic sheep grazing with our past litigation. Now, after full implementation of the Payette’s current decision, only 31,592 acres out of the entire 2.3 million-acre forest will be open to domestic sheep grazing equaling just 1.4% of the entire forest. Knowing that the Bighorn Sheep numbers were low, I was excited to see how many we could spot throughout the trip and had the whole float party on active alert to capture any photos or information on them.

On our third day we had yet to see a Bighorn Sheep. Bighorn have a long way to go before they can be considered recovered in Hells Canyon the Salmon River Canyon. At one point there were about 10,000 in the area, and now they’re at about 10-15% of that population level. But with each successive victory, we remove more of the threats to their survival. Those of you in the canyons this summer, remember that for every Bighorn you see there should be roughly 10 of them.

Why do domestic sheep disrupt the success of Bighorn? Domestic sheep carry a mortal disease that spreads to the Bighorn herds and causes large mortality rates. In 1996 HCPC was integral in stopping domestic sheep grazing on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon, but if you have ever witnessed a whole herd of Bighorn swimming across the Snake River, you would have to wonder how protected the Bighorn were from the disease crossing the river. Now, with the Payette’s decision the entire area will become a safe haven against lethal diseases for the Bighorn Sheep.

On our last day of floating through 70 miles of beautiful, clear water, four stunning canyons, all the fun rapids and endless sandy beaches we had yet to see a single Bighorn Sheep. As the Salmon River merged with the Snake River, we could see both the Idaho and Oregon sides of Hells Canyon. After a few miles we looked up on the Oregon side of the Snake River and had our first glimpse of a Bighorn Sheep herd! The herd consisted of about 14 Ewes and several lambs, all grazing on a steep canyon wall. We floated another mile and came upon another herd, this time with four rams, all perched precariously on the cliff walls above our heads. As we floated by they seemed as curious about us as we were about them, watching us from high above. What a regal sight to see, and a wonderful ending to another amazing trip down the Lower Salmon River. I look forward to returning in a few years to see more Bighorn roaming the cliff sides of the Salmon and Snake River systems, and take pride in the fact that I get to work with the organization that helped that happen!

Renee Tkach, Development Outreach Coordinator

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