STEVENSVILLE —Jay Meyer has had a long-running battle with Mother Nature along a section of Burnt Fork Creek that runs through his family ranch east of Stevensville.
When the snow piles in the nearby Sapphire Mountains and comes off quick in the spring, the resulting rush of water cuts deep into the banks along the creek.
“We have always struggled with spring runoff along that section of the stream bank,” said the longtime rancher and retired Stevensville teacher. “We’ve worked at trying to find a solution to Mother Nature’s whims, but she’s unpredictable.”
The section of the stream that’s created the challenge for Meyer is a favorite spot for the herds of white-tailed deer looking to browse during the winter months. Between their appetite for young cottonwood and aspen seedlings and his cattle’s need for water, the stream banks haven’t had a chance to heal.
Awhile back, Heather Barber of the nonprofit Bitter Root Water Forum stopped by for a visit with Myer and to offer an idea that would help upgrade his grazing system while restoring the riparian area along the troublesome section of Burnt Fork Creek.
The Hamilton-based group has a history of successful stream bank restoration projects from Miller Creek near Missoula all the way to the East Fork of the Bitterroot that were made possible through funding from both public and private grant programs and a small army of volunteers willing to get their hands dirty planting native vegetation and doing other work.
Their efforts received a boost in 2018 when the Montana Department of Environmental Quality announced it would direct half of its 319 program funds to the Bitterroot Watershed for three years. The 319 program’s nearly $1 million in funding comes through the federal Environmental Protection Agency to support work at local levels on issues of nonpoint source pollution in Montana.
Temperature, sediment and nutrients are the big three nonpoint pollution sources in the Bitterroot Valley. Restoring riparian vegetation along the troublesome section of Burnt Fork on the Meyer ranch would address all three.
“The water forum was willing to take on the challenge and work to help us find a solution to the bank stabilization issues we were seeing on Burnt Fork,” Meyer said. “We were certainly willing to give it a try.”
On a morning last week when a dusting of snow offered a glimpse at what the weekend would bring, Bitter Root restoration coordinator Andrea Price and Meyer took a walk across the ranch lands that have been in Meyer’s family since the 1960s.
In the middle of a pasture the Meyer family has grazed for decades is a brand new watering tank that’s central to the nearly completed project.
Stopping to brush snow off the tank, Meyer talks about the opportunities it offers him to create a rotational grazing system that will improve the overall quality of the pastureland.
“It will be a great tool for plant management,” Meyer said. “Once the fencing is in place, you can rotate your stock through these different cells while letting the land that’s been recently grazed regenerate and regrow. That’s pretty exciting for me.”
To make projects like this work, Price said it has to be beneficial for both the landowner and the resource.
“While our first goal was to keep stock off the stream bank, this project also offers other benefits,” Price said. “These projects aren’t something that we try to force on landowners. They need to be able to see that it’s going to be good for them as well. This project will not only have positive benefits for the ecology of the stream, but it should help Jay’s ranching operation.”
Earlier this year, Price and a host of volunteers built exclosures that allowed cottonwood and aspen seedlings to flourish this summer. Some of the plants grew almost three feet in a single year.
“There is already a good source of plants along the creek,” Price said. “They just need the opportunity to grow.”
A group of volunteers recently planted 60 willows and protected a like number with wire cages.
Stevensville-based fishing outfitter Eddie Olwell was one of the volunteers who offered his time to help with the project.
As an outfitter, Olwell said he knows the importance of the tributaries to the Bitterroot River’s fishery. Volunteering to help protect the habitat along those tributaries is time well spent for anyone who cares about the future of trout populations in the Bitterroot, he said.
The project also includes a riparian fence that will keep cattle off the unstable portion of Burnt Fork Creek during the time when the plants take hold. Once that happens, Price said the ranch family will be able to use that land for pasture again.
Price said the project was funded through the DEQ’s nonpoint pollution program and a cost-share from the Bitterroot Conservation District.
Both Meyer and Price hope the project will someday be seen a pilot program for other landowners interested in restoring riparian areas.
“Sometimes Mother Nature just needs a little help,” Meyer said. “I give Andrea a lot of credit. She dove into and was totally open to understand everything that was involved in making this work.”
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