Mink Creek Beaver Restoration: the Tip of the Iceberg

Cow-stomped Mink Creek. Photo: John Carter.

A current proposal by the Caribou National Forest’s Westside Ranger District provides for constructing artificial beaver ponds in the Mink Creek drainage which serves as part of Pocatello’s municipal water supply.  The announcement from the Forest Service describes beaver activity as being diminished in Mink Creek streams and that beaver dams in the area are not stable.  These factors lead to loss of water storage, riparian habitat, and stable streams.  In addition, water quality is not meeting standards and these artificial dams are intended to help in that regard. While the proposal intends to provide these benefits and on its surface is attractive, one must ask why is this needed?

Mink Creek is grazed by cattle which degrade streams, pollute the water, reduce ground water recharge, deplete stream flows, cause loss of aspen, willow, cover, and forage for wildlife, including that needed to support beavers.

In 2014, the Caribou NF released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement to renew the permits for grazing the Pocatello, Midnight and Michaud grazing allotments, which would directly affect Mink Creek and other area streams.  Knowing the importance of Mink Creek to Pocatello and Bannock County as a water supply and how cattle grazing pollutes streams and water supplies with bacteria, sediment, and nutrients (manure), Yellowstone to Uintas Connection monitored Mink Creek and its tributaries for E. coli in the summer of 2014.  We found that E.coli standards were exceeded, even in the West Fork that was supposed to be closed to livestock, but which was trespassed by cattle.  We also found that streams were drying up, their banks were heavily trampled by cattle and eroding into the stream, livestock use was severe, and aspen recruitment was poor as exhibited by comparison to areas where livestock were excluded.

Our E. coli results merely reflected what Idaho Department of Environmental Quality had documented decades earlier, finding streams in the Mink Creek and Portneuf drainages polluted by bacteria, sediment, and nutrients.  Idaho Department of Environmental Quality did follow up monitoring, finding that in 2015 and 2016, the streams still exceeded E. coli criteria.  This meant the public and its water supply remained at risk due to this bacterial pollution of the popular streams adjacent to Pocatello.

But I get ahead of myself.  We submitted our data and comments to the Caribou NF in late 2014, asking that these allotments be closed to livestock to protect this municipal watershed and recreation area.  We also asked that trapping of beavers be ended as there were concerns over the declining population in Mink Creek.

In 2016, the Forest Service withdrew its Environmental Impact Statement stating, “We have decided to forgo completion of the Environmental Impact Statement analysis in favor of utilizing other tools and authorities to improve allotment administration and resource conditions on these three allotments.”  This allowed the Forest Service to avoid accountability to the public and enabled the agency to go on with business as usual, business that has resulted in the pollution of these streams, loss of beaver and riparian ecosystems and the cutthroat trout that depend on clean, cool water.

During this process, the City of Pocatello had also asked the Forest Service to eliminate livestock grazing in its watershed.  Because of the Forest Service’s decision to abandon its environmental analysis, Pocatello’s water supply remained at risk and its costs for treatment of drinking water and its wastewater would be higher than otherwise.  In addition, the Forest Service pushed the burden of maintaining fences around portions of this watershed onto the City of Pocatello and its taxpayers, rather than the grazing permittees who profit from nearly free grazing on the allotments.

It is of further note that in 2006 Pocatello voters had passed a $9.5 million bond to secure additional surface water rights.  These would be rights to heavily polluted water that the Forest Service could clean up. After all, regulations for the Forest Service insist that the agency work with municipalities to protect their water supplies that come from National Forests.

We visited Mink Creek in fall, 2016 and observed the continued devastation of the streams despite the existing standards that were clearly violated. In writing this, I compared grazing management standards provided to the ranchers in 2016 against that for 2021.  This revealed that some standards that were protective of stream banks in 2016 have been eliminated or become more lenient in 2021.  This enables more, not less cattle presence in and around the streams.  I suppose this is part of the improvement in management promised by the Forest Service in 2016 when it abandoned its Environmental Impact Statement in favor of “other tools and authorities”.

Pocatello residents should be clamoring for the Forest Service to eliminate livestock grazing in their watershed and out of the heavily used recreation area in Mink Creek.