Notes from the Field: Connectivity of the Snake River Watershed

Cool mornings and the sun falling over the western mountains earlier and earlier each night reminds us that the fleeting summer is nearing its end. As the eclipse mania fades in Jackson and the surrounding areas, we can’t help but reminisce about the gorgeous summer days spent on the protected properties throughout the valley. Every single one of our conservation easements has one thing in common: water. Whether situated along the Snake River Riparian Corridor or with views of the Skillet Glacier on Moran, all of the properties we work to conserve rely on water to nourish the dynamic natural communities.

The Snake River and its tributaries trace like arteries throughout our valley. It pumps south, all while being refreshed by the bubbling veins of the Buffalo Fork, the Gros Ventre, Fish Creek and countless other hydrologic capillaries. Just like the heart, our river systems are the lifeblood of our land, providing moisture, habitat, recreation, views and a unique connectivity throughout the landscape. Mountain streams carrying snow melt from deep in the Tetons converge with the Snake that has just passed through open fields of sage and wildflowers, dense forests and ranch lands dotted with cattle and bison alike. No other system in the valley is as dynamic and far reaching as our watershed.

This past winter saw record snowfall amounts that directly impacted the nature of our hydrologic systems by the time spring had arrived. While adventurous rafters and kayakers exulted as the dark, silt-laden waters reached over 30,000 cfs in the canyon, landowners along the Snake River riparian corridor braced for flooding and watched as the high water mark creeped past the willows and into the cottonwood stands. Even behind the levee, back channels and irrigation ditches topped their banks as the system was saturated. Some ranchers rejoiced as they were able to move water to the far reaches of their properties that have been left desiccated and moisture-strapped for many seasons. At the same time, riparian willow and cottonwood communities quietly enjoyed the rising water table and fresh silt deposits. Cottonwood regeneration relies heavily on the introduction of rich, flood-deposits and waits until water rise to release its soft, fluffy seeds which then get trapped by sticky, fresh silt.  High-water seasons like this past spring serve can serve as catalysts for revitalization in riparian zones.

The habitat and resources that the river system provides pump life and productivity into the valley. Ranchers rely on wet meadows for hay production and healthy forage while migrating neotropical songbirds find food sources and excellent cover in the twisted branches of willows and wildflowers. Fishing raptors like osprey and bald eagles patrol the currents for signs of silvery trout while rafters and fishermen find adventure and share these experiences with visitors from all over the world. And while the river continues to beat forward, carving new channels and islands, pushing into new back channels and scouring new pools, it is always providing connectivity. From the ranchers to the rafters, the alpine high-country to the meadows, the songbirds to the soaring eagles, the watershed of the Snake River is the most dynamic force in connecting this community.

-Molly Broom, Stewardship Associate

Photo: Dynamic waterways flowing toward Munger Mountain