"Wild rivers are earth's renegades, defying gravity, dancing to their own tunes, resisting the authority of humans, always chipping away, and eventually, always winning."

- From "River Gods" by Richard Bangs

ARLEE - Following a flood in the 1940s, man set about teaching the Jocko River a thing or two.

There was no need for it to meander near - and therefore threaten - the trout hatchery here run by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, it was decided.

And so they plowed a new course for the river, one, as Germaine White says, that was as straight as a lane in a bowling alley.

It wasn't the only section to get "straightened out" back then.

Projects like those, plus decades of development, agriculture and livestock production along the river - not to mention the construction of three dams on the Clark Fork - significantly altered the Jocko.

Among other things, the dams halted thousands of years of migration routes of bull trout, which once traveled 174 miles and gained 3,000 feet in elevation to get here from Idaho's Lake Pend Oreille.

Other meddling by man soured, to various degrees, the remaining fish habitat.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have set about changing that.

***

"It's sort of a ‘Field of Dreams' vision," says White, information and education specialist with CSKT's Natural Resources Department: " ‘If you build it, they will come.' Instead of growing and throwing, we're trying to restore the habitat for bull trout."

It's a massive project covering the entire Jocko watershed, years in the works, with years left to go.

In some places, it's as simple as removing the cattle that defecated in the river's tributaries and grazed their banks down to dirt.

In others, entire homes, barns and other outbuildings are disappearing from the Jocko floodplain, torn down one by one as the tribes begin restoring land near the river to its natural habitat.

The money for all this comes from an

$18.3 million settlement in a natural resource damage lawsuit filed by the state of Montana against Atlantic Richfield Co. in which the tribes intervened.

CSKT could have used the settlement money to restore sections of several individual streams, White says, but the Tribal Council saw it as a unique opportunity to focus on a single, and entire, watershed.

Since more than

75 percent of the Jocko's nearly 250,000-acre watershed is already on tribal land on the Flathead Indian Reservation, the tribes chose it.

"We're fortunate to be in the backbone of the world, where water begins," White says. "There are so many others down the system, especially by the time you get to the Columbia River, where you encounter dam after dam, and they have no choice but to grow and throw."

Here, they could do something else. The Jocko River Master Plan was born.

***

It was a long labor.

The main stem of the Jocko travels 25 miles across the reservation to its confluence with the Flathead River, and there are untold more miles in the river's north, middle and south forks and their countless tributaries.

Fortunately, much of the latter sits in land already protected by the tribes' Mission Mountains Wilderness Area and South Fork Primitive Area.

"The most optimal restoration, the highest impact, is in the lower 25 miles," says project leader Les Evarts.

Already, 32 parcels of land and more than 3,300 acres of ecological floodplain have been purchased and put into the Jocko project.

After the settlement was reached in the late 1990s there were, Evarts says, "four to five years of in-depth research and assessment before deciding how to approach the lower 25 miles."

If it's already pristine, you take steps to protect it, he explains. The rest requires either active or passive restoration.

Active restoration, of course, involves "bringing in the big yellow machines," as White says, to rework the river.

"Passive doesn't get enough ink, in my opinion," Evarts adds.

That, White explains, is simply stopping or reducing disturbances to the water.

"If you stop the damage and allow the river to repair itself, it will," she says. "It does what it needs to do to get its groove back."

"You put the big yellow equipment in the stream," Evarts adds, "when it's the last choice."

***

And that's all they could do on this section next to the Jocko River Trout Hatchery, where man long ago plowed a new straight line for the river to run.

"The river could not restore itself here," Evarts says. "It couldn't re-raise itself to its flood plain. We had to build a stream on fill."

Today, the rebuilt section looks like an unending dollar sign. The fill in the old channel runs like a straight line through the "S" curves now carrying water on the route that once was, before man intervened.

Man's re-intervention this time includes log jams and vanes to protect the river's banks until the vegetation the tribes have planted matures and can do the job itself. Restoration botanist Rusty Sydnor consulted with tribal elders to determine what plants were native to this area, one aspect of the program White especially likes.

"We're combining the best science and technology with traditional tribal ecological knowledge," she says. "Science often looks at one discrete piece of the puzzle. Fisheries people look at one piece of the watershed, but for the tribes, they're all connected - the fisheries, the wildlife, the botany. It offers a bigger view for the project."

***

And so, up to 150 yards from the Jocko, on 5,775 acres once owned by the Schall family, 70,000 pounds of metal have been removed from the old ranch and recycled. Likewise, wood from homes, barns, bunkhouses and other outbuildings being torn down will be auctioned as barn wood.

"This should be a cottonwood gallery filled with whitetail deer," Evarts says of the pastureland, and one day it will return to that.

The tribes are working their way downstream, buying property where possible and working on conservation easements elsewhere, restoring not just a river, but an entire watershed.

"The goal is a dynamic stream that is not pinned down," Evarts says.

Combined with fish passages planned at all three dams on the Clark Fork, the day may not only come when bull trout can again migrate to the Jocko, Evarts says one already has.

A radio-tagged fish from Idaho made it over the three dams (where some are transported by hand). "It came up the Clark Fork, took a left at the Flathead River, and a right on the Jocko," he says.

Any who follow will one day find a river much better suited to them.

"We're turning back the clock," White says, "and giving bull trout that are on the brink of extinction a chance."

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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