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Farms and Fish: Projects Beneficial to the Log-term Health of the Bighorn River

Jan 2021

Lead Scientist

Craig Hossfeld

study objectives

The Bighorn River is an extensive ecosystem utilized by multiple parties with differing priorities. The objective of this portion of the 2020 BHRA Research Initiative was to use Out West’s background in the farming and ranching industries alongside their technical expertise to research a series a prototype projects that are mutually beneficial to the farm and ranch operators, anglers, and other river users to facilitate shared goals moving forward. From this work, a group of high priority projects were to be identified, designed, and outlined for future consideration with engineering design, cost, and funding sources. 


Out West researched and developed multiple projects that married the interests of the farm and ranch operators with the overall health of the Bighorn River. Together, Out West and the BHRA vetted the projects and prioritized the continued investigation in three major areas: turbid water return optimization, improved livestock access to the river, and the formation of a long-term joint coalition/working group. 

A major point of contention between the agricultural community and the recreational users of the river has been high turbidity or “cloudy” return flow. Our research has shown that while not all turbid returns are directly from farm and ranch operations, there are potential projects to reduce the agricultural impact on turbidity and benefit both communities. The most promising avenues to combat turbid returns are to convert from flood to sprinkler irrigation, replace ditches with pipelines when possible, and control livestock access in highly erodible areas. Unfortunately, fractionated ownership and short-term leases combined with high capital investment requirements have previously limited agricultural producers from employing these solutions to their full extent (Figure 1). Overcoming these obstacles will take a group effort but will have great benefit to producers and river users alike.

The river is a desirable environment for anglers and nature lovers, while also serving as an ideal location for livestock to water and escape the heat. Unfortunately, cattle do not always choose ideal locations for river access and occasionally use steep and unstable areas. These access points are putting the livestock at risk and deteriorating riverbanks. Through aerial and on the ground investigation we identified a series of locations where current livestock access can be controlled to promote access in naturally ideal locations for the cattle and riverbank health. Fence lines would be installed to direct cattle movements to more ideal locations (Figure 2) and, in some cases, solar water set-ups added to provide ample, clean drinking water to the livestock if a suitable access is not located within the pasture. 

Accomplishing the joint goals of all river users is a monumental task that cannot be tackled in one year by a small group of people. Through our investigation of funding avenues available, we found an opportunity to maximize both funding and the overall impact of our collaborative effort. The NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) promotes coordination of the NRCS conservation goals with motivated cooperators to maximize positive impact and return on investment. We believe that a long term working group could be established with representation from all river users to partner with the NRCS in the RCPP to access a portion of the $300 million dollar annual budget and maximize the impact we can all have on the Bighorn River and surrounding industries. 


Marrying the goals and actions of all river users is the best way to both foster healthy relationships and support the healthiest ecosystem for the river. Our research has shown that there are many projects and avenues (i.e. conversion of flood irrigated acres and management of livestock river access) that will provide immediate benefits to all parties and the river itself. Cooperation and coordination of everyone’s efforts is the best way to effect change and maximize the river’s potential; establishment of the proposed working group allows everyone a seat at the table to accomplish this goal. 

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