SULA – Mike Jakober was worried recently about what he might find in Cameron Creek.
The Bitterroot National Forest fisheries biologist had stopped by the small creek southeast of Sula during the recent hot spell to check the tributary’s pulse.
It didn’t look good for trout.
The creek’s waters were alarmingly low and were much too warm for cold-water-loving fish.
After the visit, he debated whether to sample the stream this year considering the conditions. The stream is one of the 15 to 20 small creeks that he and Montana, Fish, Wildlife biologist Chris Clancy monitor on a regular interval.
“Some of them we sample every year and others we try to get to every five years,” Jakober said.
Cameron Creek is on that five-year cycle. The last time his crews walked its banks was 2010.
In all of the Bitterroot National Forest, Jakober believes the Cameron Creek drainage may be the most vulnerable to climate change. It’s relatively low in elevation and the fact that it is mostly south facing leaves it more vulnerable to increases in temperature.
When this year’s snowpack disappeared early and temperatures soared, Jakober thought the creek’s population of westslope cutthroat might suffer.
“I’ve been seeing some of the headwater tributaries going intermittent this year,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of 2- to 4-inch trout trapped in isolated pools just waiting for more water to show up.”
When the weather changed and brought both lower temperatures and some rain, Jakober decided to move ahead with his monitoring mission of Cameron Creek in mid-July.
After Nathan Olson strapped on the backpack electro-fishing equipment, Jakober and intern Drake Boone began slowly working their way down through middle of the 600 foot reach of Cameron Creek with nets in hand.
Almost immediately, they started finding fish.
After catching a few longnose suckers and mountain whitefish, they started to find a few brook trout. Around the first bend, they caught their first westslope cutthroat.
Along the way, Jakober pointed out where the water level had dropped after the beaver population had disappeared over the past couple of years. He showed the large deposits of sediment along the banks that were already beginning to grow new willow sprouts and sedges as a result of the beaver’s impoundments.
A narrow stream is a healthy stream.
“Generally, people have this negative attitude toward beaver,” Jakober said. “They think they’re a detriment to their water supply, but it’s really just the opposite. Their impoundments hold the water levels up. The water stays in the system longer. It’s a shame to see them gone. You can see the water level has dropped by 2 or 3 feet here in the last three years.”
It’s hard to know if the beavers’ stream-building activities will hold up now that they’re gone.
In the shallow water, Jakober spotted another discouraging sight.
The remnants of three western pearlshell mussels were stuck to the mud along the creek bank.
Cameron Creek is one of six streams in the Bitterroot Forest where Jakober has found the long-lived freshwater mussel. On this day, he found a lot of dead ones.
“There used to be a strong population of them in the Bitterroot River all the way down to Missoula,” he said. “You can still find some, but not many. Their populations seem to be declining.”
The shallow water appears to have made the mussels subject to predation. The shells have been pried apart and the mussels eaten.
“It looks like a raccoon or something similar found these,” he said, holding a handful of shells. “They can live to be very old, upward of 50 to 75 years. Some of these might have been older than I am.”
The general consensus is that warmer water and siltation might be playing a role in their demise.
There aren’t many places in the West where fisheries biologists know small streams better than on the Bitterroot.
Jakober and Clancy monitor about 120 different sections on the Bitterroot Forest. Many of those monitoring sections have been in place for at least 20 years.
“We are the only forest in western Montana that is doing this monitoring at this level,” he said. “To me, it’s the most valuable piece of information that we can gather. It actually tells you how your fish populations are doing.”
When it comes time for people to consider some sort of management action, the two biologists can pull up real data to show how a fish population in a particular stream is faring.
“The longer we keep it up, the better the trend information becomes,” he said.
On their monitoring mission, Jakober and his crew marked a total of 31 westslope cutthroat trout and 19 brook trout, which was more westlope and fewer brookies than in past surveys. That came as a welcome surprise for the biologist.
“I thought it was going to be much worse,” he said. “It was very encouraging to see that we were picking up westslope between 3 inches and up to 9. That means there were at least three different age classes.
“It was a good day for westslope, but not such a good day for pearlshell mussels,” Jakober said.
Now, if the cool weather can just stick around. The worst fire weather typically comes between July 20 and Aug. 10.
“After that, the nights start getting longer and the night time temperatures make a big difference in keeping the water cooler,” he said. “These last 10 days have been a rare treat. I hope it sticks around.”