The Bear: Life and Death of a Western River
Chapter I — Headwaters
At the confluence of Stillwater Fork and Hayden Fork, the Bear River is officially born, at least according to maps.
But the Bear River begins much higher than that, first as snow, above 10,000 feet in the Uinta Mountains. It melts into creeks and springs, gaining momentum, getting bigger. The river starts in Utah, but it doesn’t linger. It travels about nine miles north and enters Wyoming. It will cross state lines four more times, weaving for 500 miles in and out of Utah, Wyoming and Idaho, before it ends at the Great Salt Lake, 90 miles from where it began.
Where the Bear River begins, so does life. Trout travel upstream to find refuge, to spawn, to continue life’s cycles. At the headwaters, too, farmers divert the Bear’s water to grow grass and cattle and sustain a generations-old livelihood on the fertile lands south of Evanston, Wyoming. Sometimes these water-based worlds collide.
“There are so few fish left in the Bear River, from a cutthroat standpoint, and so many fish barriers we actually didn't know if there was a migratory life history still present,” said Jim DeRito, a fisheries restoration coordinator for Trout Unlimited.
The fish barriers in the Upper Bear are mostly agricultural diversions. In some cases, it’s push-up dams made of concrete and rock. In others, it's diversion canals that send fish on a one-way trip out to the fields.
“They’re getting stuck, stranded and dying, basically,” DeRito said.
He’s working with landholders to re-engineer ranchers’ diversion so they’re fish-friendly. The work isn’t cheap. One of DeRito’s first projects, a fish screen on the East Fork Bear River, cost more than $105,000. But Trout Unlimited has tapped funds from federal sources like the U.S. National Resources Conservation Service, since improving aging irrigation diversions also helps farmers.
They secured $1.2 million to work on 30 miles of the Bear River alone.
“Nothing gets done without money. It’s the mother’s milk of conservation,” DeRito said.
When DeRito talks about watershed restoration, the sentences flow fast with a cool confidence. He has worked on restoring the Bear River for six years.
He knows fish and farmers can coexist. He sometimes sees bumpers stickers that read “cows, not condos” and says he's on board with the sentiment.
Around 20 percent of the Bear River Basin is in Wyoming. Nearly all the fields there have been flood-irrigated since the time pioneers claimed the first water rights on the river.
Flood irrigation gets a bad rap for inefficiency, but it returns flows back to the river. Plus, the thousands of acres of grass and cows are preferable to subdivisions when it comes to fish habitat, DeRito said.
“It still retains a lot of its natural diversity. You see all these cottonwoods out here, that’s great riparian habitat, it provides cover to the stream,” he said. “There’s tremendous wildlife benefit. That’s something we want to see maintained.”
As their name suggests, Trout Unlimited tends to focus on game fish, especially trout. The Bear River's native Bonneville cutthroat trout is a big focus of their conservation efforts in the watershed.
Native fish in the Bear River evolved with the watershed’s unique cycles. Snow accumulates at the headwaters upstream. Spring triggers runoff, which cues fish like the Bonneville cutthroat to start swimming upstream. They seek cold water to spawn. Fry emerge in the summer, eating bugs and getting bigger.
Some trout will spend their entire lives at the headwaters.
“At six inches they’re mature, they’re adult. They’re going to spawn again and continue that cycle,” DeRito said.
Others swim to the warmer waters of the main stem of Bear River where they have more room and more food.
“They’ll grow from 12 inches up. In some cases, they get to 20 inches and several pounds size-wise,” DeRito said.
Still, even the big trout travel to the headwaters to continue the lifecycle.
Trout Unlimited has tracked fish movements in the Bear River with radio tags so they have a better idea of the journey these fish endure.
“We found some fish we tagged in Bear Lake State Park — come spring, April and May, they came up here to spawn,” DeRito said. “So they’re traveling 40 miles one-way distance to go spawn.”
It’s not just the Bonneville cutthroat that have evolved with the Bear River, of course. The Wyoming Fish and Game Department identifies 12 native fish species in the Bear River Basin. The agency has earmarked the bluehead sucker, the northern leatherside chub and the Bonneville cutthroat as species with the greatest conservation need.
The watershed’s native fish face a variety of threats, including competition with non-native fish, cattle grazing and stream alteration. Long-term, climate change could present the greatest threat of all.
That’s all the more reason to protect the headwaters and fish migration routes, DeRito said.
“This is what we’re really thinking is going to be the climate refuge for cold water fish like trout,” he said. “As you go further and further down river, and lower in elevation, a lot of that water has been lost already and that’s only going to be exacerbated by climate change.”
When water gets too warm and shallow, it loses oxygen. Fish become stressed and die.
Climate change also poses big challenges in the mountain forests where the Bear River begins. Warming temperatures have helped speed up bark beetle reproduction, decimating pine and spruce stands throughout the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
A warming West is expected to bring longer wildfire seasons and more intense burning. Large swaths of charred forest can mean debris torrents, which load streams with sediments and disrupt fish habitat.
“So you want to connect as many good (fish) populations together as you can to improve the long-term assessment, or chances, for those populations,” DeRito said.
DeRito’s wrapping up his latest river improvement project this fall, on a diversion owned by Wade Lowham about 30 miles from the headwaters.
Lowham’s a gritty cowboy with a graying handlebar mustache and a busted but affable ranch dog named Rock.
He joked about the water master, a guy who monitors irrigators and tells them when to curb their water diversions based on their water right priority.
"If you’ve got too much water, he will turn you off,” he said. “If you’re low, he will not turn you up. It’s a one-way deal.”
Lowham’s water right is old, first filed in 1889. Two families tried diverting the share from the river to their land via a wooden flume. Both families went broke. The flume was too hard to maintain.
Somehow Lowham’s grandfather, Alex Jamison, made it work by altering the riverbed instead.
“My grandpa died when I was pretty young, but he said it was a semi-load of dynamite,” Lowham said. "He figured if he blew that hill off, they could raise the river, change the diversion."
There’s a bare spot on the steep sandstone ridge to the west. Lowham figures that’s where his grandpa set off the explosion. Jamison also dumped old broken-down cars and trucks in the river to help channel water to his diversion canal.
“He called them ‘Detroit rip-rap,’” Lowham said.
While Jamison’s methods weren’t exactly elegant, they were effective. Lowham has enough water to irrigate hundreds of acres grass, allowing him to raise 600 head of cattle. The trouble is getting the water to his headgate.
Every year, he has to take a track hoe into the river and push up a rock and concrete barrier. He can’t leave the barrier in place during runoff season or it’ll cause a flood, so he rips it out again in the fall.
“It’s a pain in the butt,” Lowham said.
It’s also not great for migrating fish. Trout Unlimited is extending Lowham’s canal and re-vamping the diversion with a more permanent, v-shaped rock structure. They'll also be getting rid of rock piles and rip-rap berms that disconnect the river from its original floodplain.
“It will extend from the middle of the river and gently slope ... getting the elevation he needs to turn water into his canal,” DeRito said. “Once it’s built he won’t have to get in the water again.”
Lowham doesn’t concern himself much with trout. The fishing near his property isn’t great anyway. Not having to maintain his push-up dam, however, will eliminate a big hassle from his operation. Plus, Trout Unlimited is covering the cost.
“It’ll help me a bunch,” he said. "All I want to do is go and turn it up and turn it down."
Ranching at the Bear River headwaters remains hard work, however. Because of the high elevation and long winters, Lowham's growing season is only 30 days.
The biggest concern is always water, especially with dry years and all the demands downstream.
"I got an old enough water right and reservoir water," Lowham said. "I mean it sucks, drought sucks, it makes everything harder. But I've got it better than a lot of people."
Chapter II of the series will publish Sunday, Oct. 21, exploring the ways Bear River propels past and future growth in the Intermountain West.