The Curlew

Creeks for grouse, grain, cows and cranes

Published online: Mar 24, 2020 Articles, East Idaho Outdoors Kris Millgate
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There’s a deep crevice in southern Idaho. It’s a miniature Grand Canyon cut through grassland instead of red rock. The creek banks are so severe, they’re cut deeper than two men tall and continue to erode every time rain falls. The crevice, which often runs dry, is close to the town of Rockland in a place called Curlew National Grassland. It’s the only grassland managed by the U.S. Forest Service in the Intermountain West.

“On the Curlew National Grassland, the streams are a limited resource. That’s tremendous habitat and a tremendous resource that we need to protect,” says Louis Wasniewski, Caribou-Targhee National Forest hydrologist. “A tremendous amount of bank erosion has gone on and when we see erosion, we have work to do.”

Campers, hunters, hikers and bikers recreate in the Curlew, but water is scarce. Picture a movie theatre with several hundred seats. That’s the Curlew. Now zoom in on the two seats in the middle of the front row. Those are the two creeks in the Curlew. They’re dwarfed by their surroundings, but hold a prominent position within the landscape. Nothing lives in the Curlew without those two creeks.

They’re named Rock Creek and Deep Creek. Despite their necessary hydration properties for land and life, they’re in sorry shape. The skinny ribbons of water need a facelift to be productive for cows, crops and wildlife. In short, they need to rise out of the crevice. That’s why the U.S. Forest Service, Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust and several other partners, are repairing the Curlew.

“Our interest out here is to merge or bridge relationships between public land and private land,” says Curtis Elke, Natural Resources Conservation Service state conservationist. “We’re stronger together.”

Historically, homesteaders contained water and cleared sagebrush. They thought both needed taming if settlers were going to make it in the Wild West. Sagebrush, in particular, was seen as a nuisance. That viewpoint continued through Western expansion and development during the industrial age.

“You read about my pioneers and they chopped a lot of that sagebrush down with axes,” says Renelle Skidmore, rancher. “Then, they put it in a pile and burned it.”

Ranchers don’t want sagebrush because their cows won’t eat it. Farmers don’t want sagebrush because it competes with crops. But sage grouse want sagebrush. Sage grouse need sagebrush to survive. The upland bird warrants endangered species status, but it isn’t officially listed. That’s the main reason for repairing the Curlew, but the benefits go beyond a bird. Improving waterways and water delivery across the Curlew for private and public purposes helps the watershed make every drop in the dry, desert system work more productively.

“It’s a remarkable landscape with a lot of opportunities here to really do some good things,” says Matt Lucia, Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust executive director. “Not only from a wildlife perspective, but from a landowner perspective too.”

Click here to read more from our April issue.



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