Protecting salmon, their nests, habitat and migration led a group of Middle Fork river outfitters to implement a new awareness program dubbed Redd Alert.
The Middle Fork Outfitters Association and its 27 members fly volunteers into the backcountry every summer to help educate people floating the Middle Fork Salmon River about the importance of not disturbing salmon redds — the proper name for nests where salmon lay their eggs and spawn.
Grant Simonds, executive director of the Middle Fork Outfitters Association, said Redd Alert is a signature program of the organization. The program is relatively simple — it involves working with river guides to steer them away from the fish redds. Most of the volunteers are retired and “have an interest in the Redd Alert program,” Simonds said. Usually they have an outdoors and camping background and have wilderness experience. Although the program is just four years old, many of the volunteers have returned year after year, Simonds said. Five of the six 2021 volunteers said they’d like to come back in 2022.
“It’s helpful to me as the organizer to have people back year after year,” Simonds said. “They know the routine and the area.”
Sometimes volunteers run the program solo and other times two volunteers are on site at the same time, he said. Volunteers are trained and given a binder which includes yellow warning sign-shaped “do not disturb” tags that summarize the Middle Fork Outfitters’ message about protecting and avoiding salmon redds. Volunteers hand out “come home” stickers provided by the Idaho Conservation League, urging support of efforts to let more fish return to their central Idaho spawning grounds, and tags about what boaters should know before they launch.
Volunteers are on site for one week during the spawning season — Aug. 15 through Sept. 15. During that time, boats are steered away from redds, float parties are restricted to a maximum of 12 boats and canceled launch dates are not reissued, Simonds said, all to protect salmon.
Typically Redd Alert volunteers are stationed at launch sites on both Indian Creek and Boundary Creek. But this year camp was set up only at Indian Creek because wildfires prevented them from being at Boundary Creek. The Indian Creek volunteer left early this year, on Sept. 6, because of the two wildfires burning nearby.
Volunteer Lee Moll of Boise spent Aug. 22-28 at Indian Creek, with another Redd Alert volunteer. It was Moll’s second trip to the Middle Fork, and was a long time coming. She ran the Middle Fork in a canoe 40 years ago, setting out from Boundary Creek.
“It was nice to see the river again and great to be in the wilderness,” she said.
Moll is a naturalist by vocation and said she’s “done some work in places where salmon survival is an issue. It was a natural thing” for me to volunteer for Redd Alert. “It was a great opportunity to spend time in the wilderness and spread information about redds. I want to do it again next year.”
Moll spoke with “quite a few groups” of boaters. The conversations were brief, and usually piggybacked with talks given by Forest Service “checkers” who provide rules of the trip talks. Outfitters brief their guests as well.
“I asked one Indian Creek checker what she thought the value of our program was,” Simonds said, “and she said it offers another voice to the education effort. We provide an additional message beyond what the Forest Service and river guides tell the boaters. We want to increase awareness to protect and conserve these fish. We don’t want additional restrictions on boaters from Aug. 15 to Sept. 15.” According to Simonds, in the last four years, the percentage of boaters avoiding redds in the Middle Fork has grown from 67 percent to 95 percent due to the Redd Alert program. “We think it’s been effective.”
Moll likes to talk “about the interconnectedness of things,” when she speaks with boaters. “Salmon are a keystone species. They’ve made an amazing journey, 900 miles each way, it’s so amazing for any of them to return at all.” She points out that some are “not always in really great shape when they get back.” The fish don’t eat during the trip and they must cross eight dams to get to central Idaho. The salmon that return to Idaho have to cross more dams than any of the other salmon runs, which means their return success rate is the lowest. That is the primary reason for ongoing conversations about removing the four lower Snake River dams.
Moll is impressed by the importance of the cycle of salmon. When they return to their spawning grounds in Idaho, the fish bring ocean resources back to the fresh water. “They nurture trees, animals and vegetation and connect fresh water and ocean ecosystems.”
“The Salmon River without salmon is a really sad thing,” Moll said. “It’s sad to lose salmon.” Plenty of salmon runs have already been wiped out by dams, which concerns Moll. Because each salmon run is genetically distinct and special, losing any runs is unsettling to her.
“Dams are a big obstacle,” Moll said. Much of the existing salmon population came from hatcheries, she said. “There are very few wild salmon left, but the Middle Fork salmon are wild. I’m excited about the possibility of bringing the salmon back.”
Middle Fork Outfitters Association member Jerry Hughes, who owns Hughes River Expeditions in Stanley, is proud of the Redd Alert program.
“Redd Alert and other programs are really great tools to educate the public about how important these fish are,” Hughes said. People taking a Middle Fork trip “are a pretty receptive audience.” Hughes and other outfitters explain to boaters that the Middle Fork is critical to the survival of Chinook salmon because it’s never had hatchery fish introduced.
The Redd Alert focuses on main stem spawners, not fish which spawn in a tributary. About 98 percent of salmon spawn in a tributary, generally farther up the drainage, Hughes said.
Outfitters were quick to buy in to the Redd Alert program in part “so we can continue to have boating access with no restrictions. We are kind of the last safe place,” for the salmon, he said of the Middle Fork. “Fish run a gauntlet,” Hughes said. “They face poor ocean conditions, predation from seawater animals, crossing dams and commercial fishing on the Columbia. That all cuts into the population.”
Forest Service and NOAA Fisheries officials assume “it’s not good when a boat flares a fish off a redd.” They don’t want to ‘take’ a fish off a redd — that means changing its behavior, not catching the fish, he said.
“Sometimes people in Idaho don’t realize how valuable the Middle Fork is,” Hughes said. It and the Grand Canyon are the most sought-after places to obtain float permits, he said. Hughes thinks the Middle Fork is viewed by people outside this region as similar to a national park. “It’s a really invaluable national resource.”
Simonds’ association estimates that the Middle Fork Salmon River contributes $100 million to the Idaho economy every year. “Middle Fork boating is extremely important to the economy of Lemhi and Custer counties,” he said. “Boaters fill motels, especially in Stanley, and they go to restaurants and retail stores.”
Hughes gave a shout out to Middle Fork outfitters who work hard to keep the river and its corridor “very clean.” The corridor is not polluted with food or waste. Solid human waste is hauled out to a septic tank, ashes from fires are put into cans and carried out. All food, paper products and any sort of garbage is picked up and carried out, he said. No soap is used near water and soap used to wash dishes or gear is strained through fine screens somewhere above high water lines. People spit toothpaste and wash off soap into buckets that are sealed and hauled off. All those practices are in place to “maintain the unbelievable water quality” of the Middle Fork, Hughes said. “The Middle Fork probably has the best water quality of any stream in the United States. That blows our visitors away.”
Within the next year the required 10-year review of the Middle Fork by the Forest Service and NOAA Fisheries will occur, the two men said.
“Our group will apply for applicant status to participate and listen in, as we did 10 years ago,” Hughes said. He expects work on the plan to start in the summer of 2022. The new rules should be in place for the 2023 float season and remain in place for the next decade.