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Instream Restoration Riparian Restoration Fish Passage
Headwaters of the Little Snake River at Three Forks Ranch   Routt County, Colorado
Primary Project Type: Instream Restoration
     Secondary Type: Instream Restoration
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  South Fork of the Little Snake River before restoration....  

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Primary Problem: Bank Instability, Channel Alteration
     Secondary Problem: Loss of Fish Habitat
Main Restoration Action(s): Channel reconstruction, Habitat enhancement, Riparian revegetation
Native Fish Focus: N/A
Is this project part of a watershed scale restoration? No
Project Dates: May 2000 to November 2000
  Initial Monitoring: November 1998
Restoration Implementation: May to November 2000
Follow-up Monitoring: 2000-2004
Lead Agency:
     Wildland Hydrology (project design and implementation)
     Three Forks Ranch (funding)
Project Partners:
Project Location: The Three Forks Ranch lies on the Colorado/Wyoming boarder, 35 miles east of Baggs, Wyoming and 40 miles north of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Within the 200,000 acre ranch, the Middle Fork, North Fork, and South Fork Rivers come together to form the headwaters of the Little Snake River. The project is located on a 10.5 mile stretch on the headwaters of the Little Snake River. Click here for a map of the project area.
Project Description: The Three Forks Ranch is one of the largest working cattle operations in Wyoming and Colorado. The ranch manages 7000 head of yearlings for a period of May to October and 1000 mother cows year round. They are also home to an abundance of elk, mule deer and antelope. New ownership saw fishing, hunting and cattle as their income base. However, significant restoration needed to take place. Historic farming practices on the ranch optimized hay production, and cattle were run on the ranch without a grazing plan. As a result, reaches of the Little Snake River and its tributaries were straightened and channelized, wetlands were drained, and riparian vegetation was over-grazed. The river(s) responded with unstable banks, excessive sediment deposition, increased channel width/depth ratio, and elevated water temperatures. Over the course of 135 years the fisheries in the Little Snake River were severely compromised.
Project Goals: To return the Little Snake and its tributaries to a more natural state with a willow/cottonwood riparian community by restoring natural stability, reduce streambank erosion, and increase wetland acreage and quality. Fisheries enhancement is divided into 5 main categories: 1) Improve instream and overhead cover in main channels; 2) Improve temperatures and low flow period depths to offset limiting factors; 3) Create spawning and rearing habitat to promote natural reproduction; 4) Create a diversity of habitats interconnected to the main-stem channels; and 5) Re-introduce native Colorado Cutthroat trout species on the side channel and pond habitat adjacent to the Middle Fork and the Roaring Fork River.
Project Methods: Restoration efforts on the Little Snake River and its tributaries included incorporation of a well-managed cattle grazing plan with instream/riparian restoration. The grazing plan consists of a high intensity/low duration grazing system on the South Fork of the Little Snake River and full rest on the North Fork, Middle Fork and main stem (the ranch Manager is now considering a 3-5 year rest rotation). Restoration design and construction was done by Wildland Hydrology Consultants. It consisted of approximately 10.5 miles of the South Fork Little Snake River, 2 miles of the main stem little Snake River, 0.6 miles of the North Fork Little Snake at its confluence with the Little Snake River, 0.9 miles of the Middle Fork little Snake River and its confluence with the Little Snake River and 0.4 miles of the Roaring Fork at its confluence with the Little Snake River.

Restoration included streambank stabilization using native materials, in-channel structures and willow-sod mat transplants. River channels were reshaped in specific locations to obtain deeper pools and a defined thalweg and width/depth ratio was decreased to reduce the excess sediment deposition. Side channels were constructed for fish rearing and spawning. Off-channel “beaver dam” plugs were constructed for habitat diversity. Existing oxbow lakes in hay meadows parallel to the Middle Fork and the main stem Little Snake were reconnected and enhanced. Click here for more information on methods used.
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  A series of cross vane structures provide grade control, fish habitat enhancemen...  
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  Restoration on this stretch of the South Fork of the Little Snake River included...  
Monitoring Data and Collection Methods: A five year monitoring program was implemented to determine effectiveness of restoration actions in restoring stream process and function and in sustaining fish and aquatic vertebrate populations. Channel stability was monitored by annual documentation stream discharge, horizontal and vertical adjustments, cross section surveys, bed-material sampling, and vegetation. Fish habitat was monitored by annual documentation of temperature, macroinvertebrates, and rapid bioassessments. For more information, click here.
Was this project effective and how was this determined? Restoration work on the South Fork of the Snake River and its tributaries, financed entirely by the Three Forks ranch owner, changed the over-grazed streams with wide/shallow, eroding channels and minimal fish habitat to stable channels with vegetation and optimal habitat for trout. Data analysis from five years of monitoring the effectiveness of restoration action on the Three Forks Ranch concludes the restored reaches on the Little Snake and its tributaries have remained stable. Despite some local pool scour and infilling at structures resulting in net aggradation on the South Fork, and minor bank erosion, there was no system-wide instability or large-scale channel adjustments. In 2005, the project area was tested by high flow events with relatively long duration and sheer stress. Although some channel adjustments occurred, data suggests the adjustments did not exceed the range of variability observed in comparable streams. Approximately 580 structures were installed on the Little Snake and its tributaries, and the majority of these structures performed as intended. Only two structures along the South Fork and one structure along the Middle Fork needed repair. Pool volume and deep-water habitat created by instream structures has been important in sustaining trout populations on the Three Forks Ranch. Each year of the monitoring program, maximum stream temperatures have reached near-lethal levels for trout at some locations; however, no notable fish mortality resulted due to the abundance of refugia in the deep pools.

The socio-economic impact of this project has been the greatest benefit. In times when ranching and cattle production is not as profitable as in the past, the Three Forks Ranch has successfully enhanced their economic base by creating a word-class fishing opportunity for anglers. People from all over the world come to the ranch to enjoy the solitude of the open space, to experience life on a working cattle ranch and of course, to fish.
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  (Before) Main stem of the Little Snake River showing bank erosion and widening....  
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  (After) Restoration design on the main stem of the Little Snake River consisted ...  
Confounding Effects/Additional Information:
Project Specs (all specs are estimates):
  Overall Estimated Cost: $ 5,000,000
Landowner Contribution: Cash: $ 5,000,000 In-kind:
For more information on this project contact:
  Jay Linderman, Ranch Manager, Three Forks Ranch, Email:
This information was collected by: Kristin Keith
Project last updated on: 5/22/2007

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Updated: February 16, 2007
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