On a crisp morning in August, a group of Trout Unlimited staff, board members and supporters gathered in the Home Ranch parking lot in downtown Jackson with an assortment of fishing gear, outdoors attire, and varying expectations of the day ahead. We were headed deep into the Gros Ventre to see the post-project transformation of the Upper Gros Ventre Tributary Ranch Restoration Project, one of the first projects to be completed by Trout Unlimited’s Snake River Headwaters Initiative.
After an adventurous 2-hour jaunt up the pothole-ridden, oilpan-denting road, we are arrived at the ranch. Stepping out to stretch our legs and un-rattle our bones, I pointed out the beautiful expanse of sagebrush, meadows, and river valley ahead. Everything as far as the eye could see was public land, as of this March, thanks to an incredible land deal in which the 990-acre property was first donated to The Trust for Public Land by former US Senator Herb Kohl, then transferred to the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
Trust for Public Land had invited Trout Unlimited to lead the charge on restoring four tributaries to the Gros Ventre found on the property in various states of impairment, because of an extensive network of irrigation ditches and diversions no longer in use. In fall 2017, after a year and a half of planning and thanks to the effort of many partnering agencies and funders, we were able to reconnect these headwaters streams to the Gros Ventre River for the first time in over 100 years.
We started the tour with the restoration work on Jones Creek, at the far end of the property, working our way back to also visit Lafferty, Lloyd, and Unnamed Creeks. Without the “before” photos I had brought, it would have been hard to imagine what the streams looked like beforehand – for the most part they looked like healthy, natural, willow-lined, cobble-bottomed small streams where juvenile fish might like to live. But with the photos to compare and contrast, the difference was clear. A handful of folks on the tour had actually seen the tributary streams last summer (while up “sampling” the mainstem river for fishable trout ) and were especially pleased to hear that after less than a year of reconnection, I had electrofished the streams with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and found juvenile cutthroat trout and other native fish already returned to the area! Of course, more rearing habitat for juvenile trout bodes well for the trout population in the upper Gros Ventre as a whole in the future.
After the tour, we bounced back down the road to the beautiful Red Rock Ranch, a stunning guest ranch located in the idyllic valley where Crystal Creek, a freestone tributary of the Gros Ventre, meanders through (and holds some especially robust specimens of Snake River cutthroat trout). Alex Maher, Trout Unlimited board of trustees member and Snake River Headwaters advisory board member, joined us for a delicious lunch of classic ranch fare with multiple dessert options hosted by the MacKenzie family. After lunch Joe MacK, the family’s designated “keeper of Crystal Creek,” a 17-year old angling and polo aficionado, guided us on his favorite stretches of Crystal Creek, where the fish seemed to willingly rise to most fly patterns and presentations. The MacKenzie family has lovingly stewarded their land and creek for decades, and the beautiful fine-spotted trout were a wonderful reminder that in the Snake River Headwaters, on public and private land alike, every stretch of water that can be restored or reconnected for this native fish contributes to its future persistence – and “if you (re)build it, they will come”.
About the Author:
Leslie Steen joined Trout Unlimited as Snake River Headwaters Project Manager in April of 2016, where she works collaboratively with a broad suite of partners on on-the-ground stream restoration and reconnection projects for native trout. She brings to her role at Trout Unlimited a diverse skill set and professional experience in fisheries, nonprofits, partnerships, and outreach and education. Originally from New York City, Leslie has a B.A. in Environmental Biology from Columbia University and an M.S. in Fish and Wildlife Management from Montana State University. She is passionate about trout and trout streams, and before joining TU as a staff member, served on the Jackson Hole Trout Unlimited board as Vice President. Leslie has lived in Jackson Hole since 2007.