Fencing for Salmon

Fencing for Salmon

By Michael Hipp, Farm Planner – Sound Horsekeeping 9/4/2018

Now, you might think the title of this article means I’m going to be talking about fencing to keep salmon in somewhere...maybe even how to start your very own salmon ranch. But no, this article is about fencing to protect salmon, and why in our day and age, and in our region, it is extremely important not just for the salmon, but for your pocketbook and your horse as well.

The Old West

We’ve all seen the scenes from the Old West movies – thousands of cows being driven across a river heading to the railhead – cowboys on horseback keeping them all in line. When I lived and worked cattle in Texas I rode across a river a time or two myself. However, where I lived and worked there was rarely any water in the river - one year we only received 6 inches of rain! In the Old West movie scenes, those rivers lack the one thing we have here in the Pacific Northwest that makes this region so unique– salmon.

The West of Today

In most places in the western United States, the Old West ways are still alive and well in a more responsible form, especially when it comes to working and using the land. The cowboys and cattlemen of today understand things they didn’t know about before, like soil erosion and water turbidity. As a result, most responsible ranches have changed their ways so that their ranch - and their way of life - can be passed on in a healthy way to future generations. Other things we understand today are the importance of preserving habitat for other species and how those can actually benefit livestock on the range. One of the most prominent species in need of habitat preservation in our region is salmon.

The Uniqueness of Salmon - Why and How We Protect Them

Juvenile salmonid

Juvenile salmonid

In the Pacific Northwest, one of the major species that defines what makes this region unique is the wild salmon. Salmon’s native habitat is limited to the waters and tributaries of the north Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Salmon are unique among fish in that they are anadromous, meaning they hatch in fresh water, migrate to salt water, and then return to fresh water to reproduce. And it is their reproduction process that makes them vulnerable and makes protecting their habitat so important.

When salmon reproduce, they lay eggs in a small depression called a “redd” that they create in the gravel of a stream or river bottom. If horses or other livestock have access to the river, their activities can erode the riverbank soil which can enter the stream, slowly settle to the bottom and cover up the eggs in the redds. When this happens the eggs lose their ability to absorb oxygen from the passing water and literally suffocate. Also, the sediment fills in the spaces available in the gravel that provide protection for the eggs and loss of redds can occur as well. And it is not just soil that harms salmon eggs. Livestock can also leave manure either directly in the stream or on the bank that can be washed into the stream during rainstorms. That manure will break down and act just like eroding soil, on top of causing other water quality problems. Also, the action of livestock walking in the stream can disturb redds and sometimes crush the eggs directly.

Walking along a buffer of shrubs in Snohomish

Walking along a buffer of shrubs in Snohomish

Protecting the vegetation along a stream, and planting buffers of native plants in the absence of trees and shrubs, is also crucial to protecting aquatic life. Streamside vegetation provides shade to cool the water, food for insects that fish feed on, erosion control and habitat along the banks.  Fencing livestock away from streams protects that vegetation.

These are the major reasons why keeping livestock (including our horses) fenced away from streams that provide habitat for salmon is extremely important for salmon survival

Protecting Salmon Protects You Economically

What could be the benefit of protecting salmon, aside from ensuring the survival of a species that is as iconic to the Pacific Northwest as the cowboy is to my native Texas? There are a lot of benefits, it seems, and a lot of it is economical.

Evidence from recent years indicates that if salmon runs were restored to their historic levels, the positive economic impact of increased recreational fishing alone would be approximately $200 per fish (1). Each additional fish caught commercially would have a dockside value increase of over $70 per fish (2). And a healthy, increasing economy helps everyone with increased opportunities (3).

Protecting Salmon Protects Your Horse

Horses are kept out of the creek with exclusion fencing and a bridge in the Stillaguamish watershed.

Horses are kept out of the creek with exclusion fencing and a bridge in the Stillaguamish watershed.

Fencing livestock from streams to protect salmon not only protects your pocketbook but it also can protect your horse. Whenever I am invited onto a property with an active stream, with access by livestock, I always ask the same question – “Do you know where this water is coming from?” That, to me, is the most important question.

I have traced water sources on properties back to polluted streams, residential parking lots and heavily traveled highways, all of which contain things that can adversely affect the health of a horse, if not directly poison them. Even if the source of the water seems like a nice, clear mountain glacier, there are still protozoa and other parasites that can be transmitted via water into your horse’s system.

When questioned about water sources, I always advise folks to take the safe option and fence horses off the water entirely. If you don’t feel comfortable drinking it yourself or letting your children drink it, then consider carefully letting your horse drink it.

“Seasonal” Streams Count

Fencing to protect salmon and your horse is not limited to just fencing off active streams. Streams that are only active during the rainy months, or what most folks call “seasonal” streams, count as well. Allowing livestock access to dry stream beds creates the erosion of soil that flows downstream during rain events and fills the connected streams and rivers with sediment that can suffocate salmon eggs. It also reduces the vegetation that helps keep any sediment in place and out of the connected streams and rivers.  So, even though there isn’t any water present in the dry months, fencing those “seasonal” streams from livestock is just as important in the overall picture.

Keep in mind too, that small tributaries that do run year-round, but don’t appear to have salmon, are important to maintain clean, cool water farther down in the watershed. If the stream on your property doesn’t appear to have salmon, it is still important to protect it from livestock and maintain a healthy buffer.

Get Free Help Today

If you have questions about areas to fence off, fence placement, or the best fencing products to use in specific applications, please contact us any time and request a free site visit. In some cases, there are also matching funds to help with fence installation and planting native plants along your banks.

Michael Hipp, Sound Horsekeeping Program Manager

mhipp@snohomishcd.org / 425-377-7019


1. Nieme, Whitelaw, et al “Salmon, Timber, and the Economy”, ECONorthwest for Pacific Rivers Council. October 1999.

2. Radtke, H and S. Davies “An Estimate of the Asset Value of Historic Columbia River Salmon Runs”, The Institute for Fisheries Resources. December 1995.

3. “Salmon and the Economy”, ECO Northwest. November 1999. http://www.wildriverscoastalliance.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/salmon_handbook.pdf