OVANDO – The little creek looks barely big enough to float a fish, let alone a spawning zone crucial to the entire Blackfoot River drainage.
It also looks remarkably natural for a waterway whose every meander and riffle was artificially installed two years ago. But don’t look for it on any fishing guide’s list of great places to wet a fly. This no-name stream on a phantom ranch represents a quiet chapter in the 25-year effort to turn the Blackfoot from decay to destination.
“We’re offsetting 100 years of severe damage,” said Ron Pierce, who’s overseen Blackfoot restoration for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for the last 28 of those years. “This is what it’s all about. I can’t overstress how important these little streams are to the health of the river.”
The Blackfoot River runs between the glaciated peaks of the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the more rolling knobs of the Garnet Range. The high streams to the north spawn bull trout, while the lower waters of the southern hills produce most of the Blackfoot’s westslope cutthroat trout. Both fish are native to the area and have earned federal protection as they struggle with habitat loss, non-native competition and climate change.
Two years ago, Pierce teamed up with Big Blackfoot Trout Unlimited restoration coordinator Ryen Neudecker to rebuild the little creek. Neudecker organized the funding, permits, contractors and design work, while Pierce provided the science and agency cooperation.
“Ron’s data set is a nationwide example of effective restoration,” Neudecker said. “We can go to a landowner and say what it means when a stream functions. We can give a good sense of where we should put our money.”
On this little stream, the money went to a box bridge that replaced an undersized culvert trout couldn’t swim through. It rebuilt 1,500 feet of streambed. It paid for instream flow, so instead of irrigating hay fields, the creek provides cutthroat trout for the entire Blackfoot River system.
The Blackfoot River Basin encompasses about 2,400 square miles. The main river flows along 123 miles, and gets support from 2,000 miles of tributaries. The public owns about 55 percent of the basin, while the remaining private land covers most of the valley bottoms, foothills and floodplain.
Mother Nature plays very rough in the Blackfoot drainage. In addition to climactic effects such as drought and wildfire, the river itself likes to rearrange things with sudden force. In 1994, it dammed itself when a mountainside sloughed off several million tons of dirt and boulders. Two years later, it produced an ice jam that nearly took out Milltown Dam.
“That ice was 25 feet thick,” Pierce recalled. “We called it Blackfoot Glacier.”
Then there are the man-made impacts. The failure of the Mike Horse Mine tailings reservoir in 1975 released tons of toxic sediment into the headwaters near Lincoln. Generations of grazing and irrigation practices made long reaches of the river unusable by native fish. The legacy of timber harvest in the surrounding mountains left many tributaries choked with sediment from decaying roads and culverts. Poorly regulated fishing hammered what trout stocks were still hanging on.
“In the late 80s, everybody was only catching little rainbows,” Montana Trout Unlimited Director Bruce Farling said. “FWP hadn’t been going up there doing periodic samples to determine the trends of the fisheries. So TU raised some money and paid FWP to go in there and do exhaustive population surveys. We got to looking at the tributaries, and said ‘Here’s our problem.’”
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By 1988, FWP realized revitalizing the Blackfoot would be a long-term project. It focused on three issues: Overharvesting the trout fishery, degradation of the tributary streams and the threat of the Mike Horse Mine.
“Surveys found fewer than 1 percent of the upper river fish were native trout,” Pierce said. “In 1989, my predecessor Don Peters wrote an article in Montana Outdoors titled ‘The Blackfoot Challenge.’ We had to get people to agree there was a problem, and then figure out how to work with them so they would let us do the work on the river.”
A crucial part was the long-term relationships developed within the ranching community – many of whose members traced five generations of family in the Blackfoot basin. Often, they had to be convinced the very practices that made their land productive were slowly killing the river they treasured.
Grazing, channelization, road sediment, poorly placed culverts and irrigation problems left 96 percent of the Blackfoot tributary streams impaired. The problems grew out of what originally were solutions. For example, the rebuilt no-name creek Pierce was showing off had been moved into an artificial channel on the edge of a meadow to provide more connected space for growing hay.
But the creek wouldn’t stay in the new channel, and frequently sheeted water across the field and the bordering road. Fish surveys showed five times as many cutthroat trout were in the hilly reach above the field as there were 1,500 feet downstream, at the other end of the artificial channel. Trout were regularly getting lost in the field when the stream overflowed during spring spawning migrations.
Many landowners in the Blackfoot don’t want publicity about their river restoration efforts. They don’t want hunters and anglers badgering them for access to private land, or they resist the notoriety that comes with breaking with old ranching traditions.
Rancher John Krutar was one of the first to answer the call, allowing a restoration project put together by the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited and FWP on a portion of Kleinschmidt Creek through his property.
“It really increased trout recruitment into the system, and it showed the other ranchers that if Krutar could do it, we could do it,” Farling said. “It’s just snowballed over the years.”
Over the next 25 years, 27 streams got their channels reconstructed. Another 38 streams alongside roads got fish passage work. Since 1990, more than 200 landowners cooperated on more than 500 projects to restore river function in the Blackfoot drainage.
The Blackfoot Challenge itself snowballed into an institution serving far more than just fish. Farling said one of the first things its members noticed was that the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service frequently launched separate, and contradictory efforts at river restoration. The simple act of bringing all involved parties around the same coffee pot made an immediate difference in the outcomes.
“It took over the details of conservation easements, community forest management, the voluntary drought plan,” Farling said. “It’s brought on things like the carcass pickup, where ranchers can get dead cattle removed to a safe place so they don’t attract grizzly bears, and then the grizzly bears don’t get in trouble. It’s started noxious weed control programs. The chapter is still up there cranking away, doing discrete but connected projects. It’s like nowhere else nationally.”