Restoring Stream Flows and Habitat: Lessons from the Blackfoot River Watershed in Montana
The Blackfoot River is located in western Montana and flows 132 miles from its headwaters atop the Continental Divide to its junction with the Clark Fork River near Missoula. Likely climate change impacts in the region include increased temperatures, changes in precipitation, and declining river flows. To help buffer native trout populations from the impacts of climate change and make trout streams more resilient, the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited is working to restore in-stream habitat and riparian vegetation as well as improve in-stream flows.
The Blackfoot River watershed is located in western Montana and totals about 1.5 million acres. The Blackfoot River itself begins atop the Continental Divide, flows through the Bob Marshall/Scapegoat Wilderness Area and Garnet Mountains, and joins with the Clark Fork River near Missoula. Land ownership in the watershed is mixed and includes 44% Federal, 5% Bureau of Land Management, 7% State, 20% Plum Creek Timber Company, and 24% private (USFWS 2011); in general, the top of the watershed is federal land and the valley bottom is private land comprised mostly of large intact cattle ranches.
In the late 1980s, private landowners, recreationists, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MTFWP) fisheries biologists, among others, teamed up to form a local chapter of Trout Unlimited called the Big Blackfoot Chapter. The mission of the Big Blackfoot Chapter is to restore and preserve the Blackfoot River and its tributaries. A collaborative agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MTFWP, and the Chapter was established to work on restoration of the Blackfoot’s fishery. Their first project was a two-year study surveying trout populations and habitat in the mainstem Blackfoot and its tributaries; since that time, several additional inventories have been completed throughout the watershed. Based on the data from the surveys and assessments, significant degradation was identified in 83 of the 88 tributaries (as of 2008, the number of stream inventories has increased to 182 streams within the Blackfoot sub-basin). Numerous factors were identified as contributing to habitat degradation and declines in native fish populations including dewatering of streams, channelizing and/or straightening streams, removal of large woody debris and riparian vegetation, loss of stream connectivity by fish passage barriers, fish entrainment in irrigation ditches, and improper livestock management. These factors combine to cause increased water temperatures and sediment and nutrient loading, which are likely to be exacerbated by climate change impacts in the region such as increased air temperature, changes in seasonal patterns of temperature and precipitation, and declining river flows.
The Big Blackfoot Chapter and its partners developed a two-pronged strategy to address habitat degradation and declining native fish populations in the Blackfoot River Watershed: (1) establish catch-and-release fishing regulations for native fish (bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout) throughout the drainage (accomplished in 1990), and (2) work with private landowners to restore habitat in degraded tributaries. The Big Blackfoot Chapter began by looking at the whole watershed to determine which habitat pieces were most in need of repair and then prioritized tributary streams for restoration. Tributaries are important to mainstem Blackfoot native fish populations because both species of native trout rely on them for spawning and rearing of juvenile fish. Five main tools were used for restoration including: restoring in-stream habitat, correcting fish passage problems, screening irrigation ditches, improving riparian grazing management, and improving in-stream flows. The primary goal of the restoration work was to repair tributaries so they could once again function as spawning and rearing habitat; a secondary goal of the work was to build resilience back into the habitat (e.g., provide shade, create faster and deeper channels, put water back into the system).
All projects in the Blackfoot River Watershed were accomplished through cooperative solutions between private landowners and the restoration team composed of biologists, hydrologists, and range conservationists. Because water rights and in-stream flows are a sensitive issue in Montana, almost all restoration work on private land initially focused on active stream restoration. Once the relationship with the landowner had been more firmly established, Trout Unlimited could approach them about water rights and improving in-stream flows.
Funding for the restoration work came from a variety of sources including the Natural Resource Conservation Service, fees from state fishing licenses, Bonneville Power, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, among others.
Outcomes and Conclusions
Several factors facilitated restoration work in the Blackfoot River Watershed:
- The right community leadership and vision to get things moving. The original members of the Big Blackfoot Chapter included a group of farsighted private landowners (who were not fishermen) as well as MTFWP and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees who led the charge for restoration work in the watershed.
- The Blackfoot Challenge. The Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited started a clearinghouse to get government agencies talking to one another and to increase awareness of on-going work in the region. The clearinghouse then evolved into a larger community forum, the Blackfoot Challenge, comprised of stakeholders throughout the valley. The Blackfoot Challenge provided a vehicle for Trout Unlimited to disseminate information quickly to a larger group of people concerned with Blackfoot Watershed issues.
One creek in particular, Wasson Creek, responded very quickly to habitat repairs and increased in-stream flows. As a result, water temperatures have stayed low, amounts of shade have increased, and fish numbers have rebounded. Trout Unlimited has produced a short video about the Wasson Creek project, which can be found here.
In 2000, an eight-year drought period began that tested the restoration work in the Blackfoot River Watershed. Up to this point, many fish populations had recovered in the repaired tributaries however, once the drought hit fish populations began to drop. Fortunately, the resilience that had been built back into the system allowed population numbers to fluctuate but not collapse. Building this resilience back into the system is likely to help buffer the system against climate change impacts.
Next steps and future goals for the Blackfoot project include establishing long-term monitoring projects and funding for monitoring to evaluate restoration efforts over time; working with private landowners to establish permanent water right dedications rather than short-term leases; and working with private landowners to change the culture of ownership so that restoration work becomes more permanent. For example, sometimes an agreement ends (e.g., no grazing in riparian areas) and the landowner allows livestock to graze riparian vegetation again, compromising the previous restoration efforts.
Kershner, J. (2011). Restoring Stream Flows and Habitat: Lessons from the Blackfoot River Watershed in Montana [Case study on a project of the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, and Montana Trout Unlimited]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: www.cakex.org/case-studies/restoring-stream-flows-and-habitat-lessons-b… (Last updated June 2011)