Environmental Group Wins 20-Year Idaho Lease to Protect Landscape From Livestock Grazing

A bid of $8,200 won the grazing lease on 620 acres in central Idaho.

Photo shows a stream less than a mile away from Champion Creek that has not had grazing pressure.
A stream located less than a mile away from Champion Creek that has not had grazing pressure.

Patrick Kelly

In a unique conservation victory, an Idaho environmental group won a state leasing auction to protect a parcel of wilderness from livestock grazing. 

This means the land will be protected for 20 years, supporting the health of two streams that are designated critical habitat for threatened fish species at a time when they are especially vulnerable.

“That was a big win, as far as I’m concerned, for the fish,” Idaho Director of the Western Watersheds Project (WWP) Patrick Kelly tells Treehugger.  

Jumping on Opportunity 

Photo 128 has Champion Creek in the foreground and the Sawtooth Mountains in the background for a landscape scale shot. Notice the near complete absence of willows, the grass bank grazed down to nothing, and the prominent sheep trail that parallels the stream.
Champion Creek is in the foreground and the Sawtooth Mountains is in the background. There is a near complete absence of willows and the grass bank is grazed down to nothing.

Patrick Kelly

The Western Watersheds Project won the 624-acre parcel of land for $8,200 at an auction on Aug. 18, according to The AP and the WWP’s own announcement. It is located in Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley, which Kelly describes as “pretty spectacular.” The habitat is mostly sagebrush and grassland, which could provide food for a local herd of antelope now that they won’t be displaced by domesticated grazers. It also covers two small tributaries of the Salmon River: Fourth of July Creek and Champion Creek. These creeks are important spawning grounds for bull trout and steelhead, both of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. 

WWP’s actions were enabled by Idaho law, which requires the state to seek the highest bidder in these auctions regardless of intended use. That money is then put towards schools, hospitals, and other public goods. In this case, WWP outbid current leaseholder Michael Henslee of Plateau Farms, who raises both cattle and sheep, the Associated Press reported.

“[T]his is a win for steelhead, bull trout, and the people of Idaho who have had land protected in an ecologically important region while also helping their public school students and the Idaho medical community,” Kelly says in an email. 

However, WWP’s ability to secure this lease is also thanks to its previous actions. The organization actually “got our start” by bidding on another piece of land in the early 1990s, Kelly says. That lease was originally denied by the Idaho Land Board until the WWP took them to court and won. The WWP still holds that original lease, which it has now renewed several times. 

This is the second property the group has bid for in Idaho. 

“It was kind of an opportunity that came up and we jumped on it,” Kelly says. 

Cattle, Fish and Climate

The WWP focuses its advocacy on the harm that livestock grazing does to 250 million acres of public lands. In fact, 2018 figures from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) found that 42 percent of 150 million acres in 13 Western states were not healthy and 70 percent of that health failure was due to overgrazing. 

Keeping livestock away from this parcel of land, in particular, is important because of what grazing can do to river ecosystems, Kelly says. Grazing can increase sedimentation and erosion while decreasing river vegetation. But trout need clear streams to spawn. 

Further, the lease comes as trout are especially vulnerable due to a variety of human-caused factors. The Salmon River is a tributary of the Snake River, which is blocked off by controversial dams. This summer also brought devastating heat waves and drought to the U.S. West, exacerbated by the climate crisis. 

“These heat waves and these droughts have a tremendous impact on any anadromous fish,” Kelly says, referring to fish like trout or salmon that migrate between rivers and oceans. 

Water in reservoirs heats up in the sun and doesn’t flow, forcing the fish to put more effort into swimming. Heat also increases the fish’s metabolism, meaning they require more food. They also require more oxygen, but the higher temperatures encourage oxygen-sucking algae and other plants to grow. The consequences are already being observed across the region. A conservation group posted a video this summer of sockeye salmon in the Columbia River suffering from heat-induced lesions and fungal infections. And the steelhead returns on the Columbia reached record-low levels this August.

Overgrazing also contributes both to climate change and its effects, since livestock can disrupt carbon sinks in the soil and dry out springs by trampling, compacting or overdrawing them. In this context, protecting the Champion and Fourth of July Creeks is one concrete action that conservationists can take now to protect fish. 

“Yes, it is a small action, but it’s definitely an impactful one,” Kelly says. “In that small stretch of stream, reducing erosion and sedimentation and egg destruction is a small step in helping these fish out.”

There is already evidence of the importance of protecting these small streams. Kelly adds in an email that, until 20 years ago, Champion Creek had dried up completely during its last two miles and did not even make it to the Salmon River. But in recent fieldwork, he observed several bull trout heading up its now-flowing waters to spawn. 

“Now that year round flows have been restored, the bull trout are recolonizing the stream,” he writes. “Pretty heartening news.  Now we just need to allow the streambanks to rest and restore themselves so the bull trout will have high quality habitat to expand into.” 

A Lot Left to Do

Photo 172 shows the Lake Creek lease, which WWP acquired twenty years ago (and which we still hold). After two decades of no grazing, the creek has rebounded wonderfully. Beavers have recolonized the area (see the dam in the picture) and the vegetation has grown back, remaining lush and green, even in this exceptional drought year (and we did nothing but let it rest for 20 years).
Pictured here is the Lake Creek lease, which WWP acquired 20 years ago. After two decades of no grazing, the creek has rebounded wonderfully.

Patrick Kelly

In response to the conservation group’s auction win, Idaho Cattle Association Executive Vice President Cameron Mulrony counters the claims that grazing is harmful to ecosystems in the West. 

“The Idaho Cattle Association promotes properly managed grazing as the best use of lands and the health of our ecosystems.  Non-use and Non-management can be detrimental to the land, the fire frequency, and the overall health of the plant communities long term,” he tells Treehugger in an email.

He also argues that every ecosystem is distinct and that grazing can even be helpful to soil and wildlife, including fish.

However, Kelly says that much of the grazing he observes is not properly managed. He points to “countless times” when cows are turned out onto the land with minimal supervision. 

“They are allowed to do pretty much whatever they want,” he says. 

But he also points out that the land WWP has leased is a tiny parcel in the grand scheme of things, hardly a threat to the livelihoods of ranchers in the state. In fact, the protected 624-acre parcel sits right next to a 46,000-acre grazing allotment owned by the U.S. Forest Service. While WWP may bid on more land if the opportunity presents itself, this is still dependent on timing and chance. 

Overall, Kelly says, WWP works to raise awareness of the consequences of grazing on public lands, and this victory is still a small part of that larger goal.

“We’re very proud and very excited that we were able to do this, but there’s a lot of work left to do,” he says. “And I want people to know that public lands throughout the west are being grazed quite heavily as we speak in the midst of an unprecedented drought and climate change.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Champion Creek had dried up completely during its last 20 miles. It dried up during its last two miles.

View Article Sources
  1. "America's Rangelands Deeply Damaged by Overgrazing." Peer to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, 2020.