May 2011 Riparian Assessments of Jarbidge Resource Area

Recently, Western Watersheds Project won a court victory halting corporate livestock ranching on 450,000 acres on the Jarbidge Field Office, BLM in southern Idaho. It was a sweet victory for sage grouse, wildlife, and other environmental values in southern Idaho – but it may or may not be short-lived.

Later this month, the Idaho U.S.  District Court will be conducting a hearing to determine whether the injunction halting two of the largest and most politically powerful corporate ranchers in the West will be kept in effect. In order to lift the injunction, it will be up to the Bureau of Land Management to demonstrate that conditions have been improving on the subject allotments enough to justify reintroduction of livestock.

In anticipation of this hearing, Western Watersheds Project, including The Wildlife News contributor Ken Cole, has been busy monitoring the allotments all season, documenting the conditions of various wildlife values on the ground to present to the court expert testimony of the dire condition that exists on this public landscape.

Here is a photo documentation including notes as photo captions of WWP’s May 2011 Riparian Assessments of the Jarbidge Resource Area:

May 2011 WWP Riparian Assessments of Jarbidge Resource Area


  1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    These photos were all taken in 2011 as far as I can see. Here in Eastern Idaho, where I write, this spring is the greenest in my memory.

    Did this Jarbidge County have a similar spring, making most of these photos look better than the usual situation?

  2. Ken Cole Avatar

    Yes, Ralph, it has been a very wet spring in the Jarbidge.

    The thing about most of the places I have seen in the Jarbidge is the drastic changes in plant communities, particularly the loss of sagebrush and the proliferation of grasses in the burned areas or the total lack of understory grasses in the areas where sagebrush still occurs.

    This is disastrous for sage grouse because they depend on areas with good sagebrush cover and with a good grass cover in the interspaces to hide in for nesting. When we went out with Dr Clait Bruan to investigate leks, or the strutting grounds for sage grouse, we found these conditions over and over again. The nesting sage grouse have no cover so their nests are easy to find for ravens which prey on the eggs. Dr Braun used the word “astounding” after we had come across our sixth or seventh raven depredated egg on our trip. He had never seen such high depredation on eggs before in so many locations.

    Instead of bluebunch wheatgrass and other native perennial grasses in the interspaces it has been replaced with bur buttercup, cheatgrass, nonnative crested wheatgrass, or just bare soil.

    The riparian areas that I visited were noticeably degraded too. Riparian areas should not contain sagebrush. They should be filled with riparian grasses, willows, cottonwoods, aspen and other riparian species. The riparian plant communities here are fundamentally different than what you would expect to seen in a less impacted system. The diversity is low and the stability of the soils is low too.

    One of the big consequences is that the streams run much higher in the spring and mug lower in the summer because the streams have washed away the soils which store water and support riparian vegetation. This is obviously bad for fish and also bad for wildlife such as nesting birds which depend on riparian areas.

    Livestock need to be removed from these systems. This would allow the perennial grasses to come back to the sagebrush ecosystems and would allow for recovery of the riparian systems. Beavers should also be reestablished here so that riparian soils could reaccumulate and provide areas for healthy plant and wildlife communities.

  3. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    Brian- You keep saying large corporate ranchers. Is it against the law to say Simplot or some other name?

    1. Brian Ertz Avatar

      No, not against the law – i guess i just figured most people wouldn’t know the reference, but i could be wrong.

      it’s mostly simplot inc. and the bracketts (state legislator and larry craig beneficiary)

  4. Larry Zuckerman Avatar
    Larry Zuckerman

    You are correct about wet weather and lots of snowmelt, even in the High Deserts of the Jarbidge Resource Area. Up on China Mountain – proposed site for a large wind farm – we were stopped in our tracks by a series of snow drifts blocking the road, and of course, we dealt with quite a bunch of muddy, rutted roads, some with standing water.

    Also as you describe my pictures, many of the riparian areas appear green with vegetation and to some, might appear healthy… but they are certainly not. Most of the riparian areas we visited at the end of May 2011 in the Salmon Falls Creek, Jarbidge River, and Bruneau River watersheds in the Jarbidge Resource Area featured annual, shallow-rooted weeds and invasive plant species that will soon die back, leaving exposed soil to bake, blow, and erode into the nearby streams.

    As Ken mentioned, sagebrush and other upland species are taking over for obligate wetland and riparian species like sedges, rushes, perennial deep-rooted grasses, willows, roses, dogwoods, cottonwoods and aspen. Basically, the highly disturbed ecosystems with heavy livestock impacts have incising streams and dropping water tables, favoring upland and weed species over native riparian plants. At the same time, livestock are grazing, trampling, rubbing, and severely browsing any remnants of the natural riparian plant community so that what we found are largely decadent stands of isolated, heavily browsed willows, and with some streams older aspen clones and cottonwoods, in the process of falling in, without any recruitment. Again, the cows and sheep are compacting the fragile riparian soils, which they exposed to sun, rain, freezing, and hooves, accelerating erosion, and even carrying the sediment from the uplands to the stream along degraded, often steep, livestock trails with collapsed, raw banks. In terms of biofiltration, almost all we viewed is ecologically broken.

    I disagree that removing cattle and sheep will entirely do the trick, since some of the damage is more than a century’s worth of crappy management, and in many cases, keystone American beaver have been removed from the ecosystems either by trapping, shooting, poisoning, or by having livestock ruin their food and building supply of riparian woody shrubs and trees. The gradients of the streams are now too steep and there is significant losses of aquatic and riparian wildlife habitats. Everytime it rains or snow melts during high flows, it gets worse, especially since most of the culverts we saw were grossly undersized.

    BLM needs to get livestock out, fix roads and install fish-passage friendly stream crossings like open culverts with naturalized stream bottom that also allow flood flows to spread onto the natural flood plain instead of being focused in a narrow, high energy stream that causes downcutting as well as headcutting. BLM should be encouraging beaver recolonization and should consider beaver reintroductions to regain stream channel equilibria as well as restore fish and wildlife habitats. With beaver, in some streams, they would take off pretty quick, but others might take decades for woody shrubs and trees to be useful for grade stabilization beaver dams and to support beaver families in a sustainable manner. This means, not just an injunction but rather long-term no livestock and hopefully permanent retirement of several allotments.

    Back on China Mountain, the proposed site of the wind farm with several tall MET towers strung up with bird-killing wires in all directions and without any devices to increase their visibility, we found all kinds of sage-grouse feces, but also what is probably the historic source of obsidian, used by the local Native Americans for their arrow and spear points, knifes, scrapers and other tools. While we found several worked obscidian flakes and broken points along several of the riparian livestock trails – easy to spot in heavily degraded, exposed riparian soils, where livestock not only uncover but also break by hoof trampling -, only on China Mountain did we find large pieces of unworked obscidian.

  5. Larry Zuckerman Avatar
    Larry Zuckerman

    The hearing is scheduled in Judge Winmill’s courtroom in Boise at the Federal Courhouse on Front Street at 8:30 AM, Weds, June 15th. Will be over by 2PM for the next case on the Judge’s docket.

    Should prove to be very interesting as Brackett, Simplot, and other permittees try to get their livestock back on the public range in the Jarbidge Resource Area.

    Larry Zuckerman

  6. Nancy Avatar

    Brian – thank you for posting this article, I can relate to the pics, I LIVE in cattle country. Its a sorry situation – the ongoing destruction of public lands by livestock, that pretty much amount to a fraction of the overall contribution to the “meat” industry, yet demand millions of acres in grazing land.

    I’m thinking many who post here just don’t realize how sensitive it really is for the land and the wildlife, unless they live here and see it firsthand. ( 7 responses to this incredibly important issue brings me to that conclusion)

    Its one thing to be pro-active in the name of an endangered species (like the wolf, grizzly and mountain lion) but if what’s left of lands (public and wilderness areas) are not recognized, protected, respected and nurtured for wildlife (predator & prey alike) and soon, rather than later…….the debate won’t last much longer for many of these species.

    1. Brian Ertz Avatar


      I certainly appreciate your comment here. All of us who contribute to editing this forum – and many of those who contribute via comment – understand the importance of this issue and would like to bring it to the forefront of more folks attention.

      Livestock grazing is the single most pervasively destructive land-use in the West, diminishing a myriad of ecosystem values which are critically important to maintaining the sustainability of the very landbase upon which we depend – to say nothing of the intangible values which contribute to the fundamental character of the west – the reason I choose to raise my children here, and the hope that their kids will have equal, if not more, opportunity at the same unique experiences and the same opportunity at exercising appreciation for the vast diversity of life which I find so important to imparting in their character.

      Unfortunately, it is the very attributes of our arid and semi-arid environment in the West, the complexity – diversity – and interrelated dynamic nature of the living systems that give them resiliency and vibrancy which make their importance so difficult to articulate – particularly in this cultural and political atmosphere.

      I’ll work harder to make more photo galleries of our experiences available in the future.

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Brian Ertz