Recovering a once-great salmon stream
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.
Conserving the best spawning habitat
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 spurred Western Rivers Conservancy to conserve two of these rare parcels. In 2020, we purchased a 110-acre private inholding within the Salmon-Challis National Forest. We then held the property, which had been slated for development, until securing funding to convey it to the Salmon-Challis National Forest in 2022. The same year, we purchased a 448-acre property which spans an additional 0.75 miles of Panther Creek and provides invaluable spawning and rearing habitat for salmon. For both projects, we utilized funding secured through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
A new future for Panther Creek
Together, these efforts will protect almost two miles 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 stretches of the river that run through the two properties are 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 lands and conveying them to the National Forest, we will set the stage for restoration and ensure the property remains conserved forever.
These projects are a win for wildlife like mountain lion, gray wolf, Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer and diverse bird species that inhabit the area. WRC’s efforts will improve river access for birders and anglers, while building on a larger effort to restore Panther Creek to the great salmon stream it once was.
Critical support for our work on Panther Creek has been provided by the Upper Salmon Conservation Action Program and Idaho Conservation League/Jervois, the Betlach Family Foundation and a generous donation from Montgomery Properties, LLC.