Table Mountain Cattle Ranch boasts 18,500 acres of hay ground, grazed range and timber, plus 10 miles of steelhead habitat in Mountain Creek. When Jim Bob Collins took over the ranch in 2002, it had been in his family since 1873.
The property had provided a good living for the family throughout the generations, but Jim Bob saw even more potential– The potential to preserve the land and restore parts of it back to their original glory. To reach this goal, Collins spent 15 years conducting several collaborative projects on the property to help create efficiencies and preserve fish and wildlife habitat.
To date, his most impactful collaboration was with the Mountain Creek Restoration Project. A ten-year, $1.4 million multi-phase project that essentially restored Mountain Creek back to its historic, winding channel after it had been moved and straightened to mitigate flooding on the homestead in the 1950’s.
This structural change to the river helped reduce erosion caused by quick-moving water in straight river channels, improve fish and wildlife habitat, improve water retention in dry months, and store excess water in the floodplain and help sustain flows later in the year and to prevent flooding in wet months.
“Working through the Wheeler SWCD, Collins obtained funding and technical assistance from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB), The National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), The Wheeler County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs (CTWS).
This project not only engaged a variety of community partners, it also created myriad long-term ecological benefits for the ranch and wildlife in the area while adding nearly a mile of quality fish habitat to Mountain Creek.
The initial phase of the project helped Collins transition the ranch from a ditch irrigation system to a much more efficient buried pipe irrigation system that reduced water usage. Ditches were leveled and moved in order to help the water flow more naturally throughout the property.
“More control over irrigation with a pipe system allowed us to manage our water use more properly and not over-water the land. No water is lost between the upper and lower parts of the ranch.”
This work not only increased land capacity for wildlife habitat, it also presented an abundance of learnings for project partners.
“We were able to see how the plants and wildlife adapted and set a new standard on plant survival rates on the East Side. Adaptive management through the CREP planting program was an incredible tool for us in the project.” said Sue Greer, Mid-Columbia program representative of OWEB.
During the next phase of the project, new gravel was brought in for steelhead spawning habitat and plants were also placed closer to the riverbank to help stabilize the ground. Over-vegetation had initially been an issue that led to the creation of a floodplain in the wrong place.
“Every phase we did, we wanted to give it time to allow for the land to heal and the plants to take root where they belonged,” said Herb Winters, Conservation Specialist and Project Manager at Wheeler SWCD.
The project also utilized the products of an adjacent juniper removal project and created enhanced fish habitat on Mountain Creek. Juniper root-wads were placed in the creek and on the floodplain, enhancing important steelhead habitat. Alder, cottonwood and willow were also planted on the property.
“This was a high-priority opportunity to create additional steelhead habitat and space for juvenile fish to rear,” said Amy Charette, Watershed Restoration Coordinator with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
Five culverts were also removed and replaced with four footbridges to allow for the passage of juvenile steelhead, as fostering a healthy steelhead habitat was a major priority for Collins as well as the entire region. This created two benefits: A healthier fish population and a decrease in the flooding of pasture land during the wet season.
Next, new pasture was created for the ranch’s bulls that pushed them further out of the riparian area to avoid waste leaching into the creek. This ensured the vitality of fish populations as well as the health of the creek.
This momentous collaboration not only found mutual benefit for the ranch and surrounding ecological systems, it created an example of what’s possible when ranchers and local organizations can partner to achieve shared goals.
“We’ve seen more elk on the property since this project was done, more eagles and hawks as well. Nobody can forecast the future with changing technology and climate change, when partner organizations and ranchers can be adaptive and find flexibility, it keeps the property profitable for the landowner,” said Collins.