If there’s a river redemption story out there, it’s Idaho’s Panther Creek. This spectacular Salmon River tributary has much in common with the better-known Middle Fork and South Fork Salmon rivers, but was decimated by decades of cobalt and copper mining. Toxic runoff left the lower river lifeless and prevented salmon and steelhead from making it into the upper river for years. Lower Panther Creek was just a scenic shell of a once-great stream.
In the 1990s, that began to change when federal agencies, mining companies and the state of Idaho began a massive $150-million restoration effort to clean up the mine and recover Panther Creek. Today, the water chemistry of the stream is nearly as healthy as it was before the mine. Aquatic insects are rebounding, salmon and steelhead have returned, and trout are thriving. The most visible legacy of Panther Creek’s mining history now is the road that runs alongside it. Panther Creek is even part of the Idaho Birding Trail, which traces the best birding sites in the state.
While Panther Creek has come a long way in terms of water quality, high-functioning spawning and rearing habitats remain degraded in places. Because it is a high-gradient stream, salmon seek out flatter stretches where the river slows down so they can spawn and rear. These lower-gradient stretches happen to be the same ones that lend themselves to agriculture and development. So, anytime land along the river becomes available, protecting and restoring it is critical from a fish and wildlife perspective.
This is what spurned Western Rivers Conservancy to purchase and conserve 110 acres on just such a stretch of Panther Creek in fall of 2020. In the spring of 2021, we successfully secured funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to convey the parcel to the Salmon-Challis National Forest for permanent protection. The effort will protect a mile of Panther Creek, including some of the river’s best potential spawning and rearing habitat for salmon and steelhead, while setting the stage for restoration that will benefit fish and wildlife alike.
The parcel that WRC acquired lies about midway up Panther Creek and was a private inholding within the National Forest, slated for development. The stretch of the river that runs through the property is considered a top priority for salmon, steelhead and bull trout recovery by both the U.S. Forest Service and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. By purchasing the land and conveying it to the National Forest, we will set the stage for restoration and ensure the property remains conserved forever.
Placing this stretch of Panther Creek into public ownership also creates new fishing opportunities for anglers and improves river access along the Idaho Birding Trail, which spans the entire length of the creek. More importantly, the project is a win for wildlife. Animals like mountain lion, gray wolf, Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer and diverse bird species that inhabit the area can forever seek refuge along this stretch of Panther Creek.