Idaho Falls Citizen Journalism

Jude Trapani remembers his first glimpse of chinook salmon spawning 1,300 kilometers from the ocean, in Idaho’s Lemhi Valley. “It was magic,” he says. Historically, 10,000 chinook journeyed up the Columbia, Snake, and Salmon Rivers to spawn in the valley’s waterways. But by the time Trapani, a fish biologist with the federal Bureau of Land Management, arrived in 1991, it was magic that the scientist saw any fish at all—the number had slipped below 100.

The Idaho salmon share a ribbon of land along the Lemhi River with ranchers, who irrigate their hayfields with water from the river. In the early 1990s, the irrigation systems at times sucked dry a stretch of the Lemhi just outside Salmon, Idaho, cutting off the fish from their spawning grounds. To save the dwindling salmon, Trapani and other biologists turned to the ranchers for help.

“Salmon seem to have this pull on people,” Trapani says. “It wasn’t hard for ranchers to ask: ‘What can I do for salmon?’”

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