Three mining companies and two conservation groups have formed a partnership to improve water quality and fish habitat in eastern Idaho’s Blackfoot River.
The Upper Blackfoot River Initiative for Conservation will start restoration projects this year based on an assessment done in the watershed known for its Yellowstone cutthroat fishery. All of the projects are voluntary.
The UBRIC partners include JR Simplot Company, Monsanto, Agrium/Nu-West Industries, the Idaho Conservation League and Trout Unlimited. The three companies mine phosphate in the region and also are involved in clean-up under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act known as Superfund.
But the companies and conservation groups have been talking since last year about this separate voluntary program aimed at restoring the health of the Upper Blackfoot, which has been impacted not only by mining but also farming, livestock grazing, road-building and even camper waste.
Despite these problems the Upper Blackfoot remains a blue ribbon fishery for native cutthroat.
“It is an opportunity for stakeholders of the Blackfoot River to come together and make a positive difference.” said Jeff Klieve, director of environmental affairs for Monsanto.
In February, the group completed an assessment of habitat conditions and fish passage obstacles, and compiled available data on fish populations throughout the Upper Blackfoot watershed that will guide its work.
“Our top priority projects are those that will immediately benefit water quality and fish,” said Rob Masonis, Vice President for Western Conservation at Trout Unlimited.
The partners said they have contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, the Idaho Departments of Fish and Game and Environmental Quality, the Bureau of Land Management, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, the Caribou Cattle Co., the Bear Lake Grazing Co., and other landowners and ranchers throughout the watershed.
“In all our projects, we will reach out to other interested parties and work collaboratively with landowners and government agencies,” said Alan Prouty, Simplot’s vice president for environmental and regulatory affairs.
The group will provide support to Idaho Fish & Game in its efforts to control, through non-lethal means, the expanding pelican populations near Blackfoot Reservoir.
“As we work to restore habitat in the Blackfoot River and improve water quality, we also need to have a thoughtful strategy to make sure the benefit of UBRIC’s habitat restoration work is not negated by the pelicans,” said Justin Hayes, program manager for the Idaho Conservation League.
Both The ICL and Trout Unlimited have been critics of the mining companies over pollution and habitat degradation issues. But working through two separate mediators, he groups were able to find a common purpose.
“We have had our differences, but we found common ground in our concern for the Upper Blackfoot watershed, which is home to many of our families, employees and friends,” said Mitch Hart, manager of mining projects for Agrium/Nu-West.
But not everyone is on board. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which has been pushing the federal government and the mining companies to clean up selenium pollution in the watershed and others, was not asked to participate, said Marv Hoyt, Idaho director for the group.
Even if they had been invited Hoyt said it would have been difficult to continue its efforts "while at the same time taking money from those companies as long as the projects don’t involve mining."