The Daily Churn

June 16, 2021

How Pacific Northwest dairy farmers help protect salmon habitat

Salmon Habitat Restoration Site with Mt Baker in the Background

Northwest Dairy Association producers — both past and present — often work with conservation groups to help protect salmon habitat in the Pacific Northwest.


Rachel Vasak, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA)

People who live in the Pacific Northwest tend to care about salmon for three different reasons. Salmon are an important economic driver, and there are a lot of people in our community whose livelihood is tied to [the] fishing industry or tourism; there’s a cultural identity around salmon.

Salmon are one of many environmental indicator species, and if salmon are thriving, then other wildlife is thriving.

Our organization strives to educate and inspire community members to take action to help sustain healthy salmon populations, and one of the ways we do that is working with all kinds of land owners who have a creek going through their property to improve the habitat, to make it better for salmon and make sure that we’re meeting the needs of property owners.

We’ve worked with a number of dairy farmers around the county, including the Sterk family here on 10-mile and four-mile creeks. We’ve added large woody debris, which improves the channel and habitat for fish, as well as stabilizes the banks, and we have planted basically all of the creeks here with native trees and shrubs to help improve the water quality.

Kevin Sterk, Sterk Dairy (Northwest Dairy Association)

If you want to increase the habitat, then you need to plant trees or shrubs or whatever along the creeks to give the shade for the fish, keep the water cool.

A man wearing a cap and camouflage jacket poses for the camera

Retired Northwest Dairy Association producer Larry DeHaan was among the first dairy farmers in the Pacific Northwest to volunteer to help restore salmon habitat running through their land. Photo credit: Kayla VanWieringen

Larry DeHaan (former Northwest Dairy Association producer)

Salmon are a cold water species, and if the stream can be covered by shading, the water stays cooler and salmon need that when they come up in the fall, primarily to lay their eggs.

Aneka Sweeney, Whatcom Conservation District

Well, here in Whatcom County, our dairy farmers are some of the largest landholders.

When approached, most really recognize the importance of protecting their streams. Any land that’s put in conservation is land that they can’t be necessarily using for farming anymore, but so many of our farmers are starting to recognize that the lands adjacent to their streams, they aren’t as productive. Also, they can’t be applying nutrients this close to a creek anyway, so setting aside that area with a protective riparian buffer can really be advantageous for those farmers as well.

We balance the ecological integrity of the land with the economic viability of the land, recognizing the importance of protecting these wild places and protecting the fresh water that flows through their land will impact their community as a farmer.

They’re not separate from that, they’re identifying with that Western Washington iconic species and recognize that the viability of that fishery is also reflective on them.

Rachel Vasak, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA)

When we sit down and take the time to talk about what those goals are, we can find common ground and find something that they can do that they get excited about doing to help improve the creek, and their lives too.

Kevin Sterk, Sterk Dairy (Northwest Dairy Association)

We try to do what’s right; we want to.

4.3 3 votes
Article Rating
1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

Huh. Yeah I mean the legacy of over 100 years of cattle and dairy farming and large scale agriculture in general is really a huge part of the habitat loss and degradation that salmon are faced with. Overfishing, Ocean pollution, Dams, and massive agricultural industries like Dairy are ALL a part of the problem, but at least some of the farmers in Whatcom are helping NSEA and other organizations with the issue. These land owners are very nice people and obviously no one wants to hear that their livelihood is causing problems for the environment. I think a lot can… Read more »