SULA — Even from a distance, it’s easy to spot that something isn’t quite right on this stretch of the East Fork of the Bitterroot.
Upstream, old-growth cottonwoods grace the riverbanks. Downstream is a large grove of willows. But this 250-foot middle stretch holds no mature trees. Its banks instead are lined with heaps of rocks, put there decades ago in the hopes of keeping the East Fork in place.
“It was channelized by the DNRC (Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation) back when people thought that was a good idea,” says Heather Barber, executive director of the nonprofit Bitter Root Water Forum. “It was disconnected from its flood plain, making it a lot harder for vegetation to exist.”
The fires of 2000 and the subsequent runoff washed extra sediment into the creek, prompting more erosion and widening the channel. In turn, the East Fork became shallower here, which allows the water to heat up faster and harm the fishery. The creek is home to both cutthroat and bull trout.
“It’s a tremendous fishery,” Barber says quietly as she watches the river flow. “That’s part of the reason that we got involved.”
The East Fork is one of 38 streams in the Bitterroot listed as impaired by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, specifically for sediment and temperature. A healthy riparian area, with streamside vegetation to provide shade for the creek, can help lower water temperatures and filter sediments. It also provides better habitat for fish eggs.
This section of the East Fork runs through the Lazy J Cross ranch, owned for five generations by the Wetzsteon family. Barber met the Wetzsteons as they worked on putting a conservation easement on the property in 2015, and told them they might be able to work together to restore the stream.
“She started telling me what we could do. We started going over ideas of plants we could transplant and grants we might be able to use,” Jill Wetzsteon said.
That was in 2016. Today, as they look at the hundreds of willows they planted and the list of trees and bushes being grown for them to install in the fall, they’re thrilled with the progress being made.
“The ranch has always meant so much to our family,” Wetzsteon said. “My dad loved fishing the East Fork and when we see people out fishing and floating by, having a great time being out on the water, it's nice to know that we had a part in sharing this great experience with them.
“It is really nice to know that getting this restoration project completed here will help generations enjoy the fishery into the future.”
For the project, Bob Wetzsteon, the ranch manager, first used a backhoe to excavate benches, then volunteers laid more than 50 mature willow transplants and 1,000 willow cuttings on the benches before he backfilled the benches.
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“Heather met with Bob and I to tell him about this project, and that we were planting willows. Bob said he had some in a channel he wanted to get rid of; we were thrilled,” Wetzsteon said.
Barber adds the mature willows already were acclimatized for here, so the chance of success goes up while the cost goes down.
The project was funded by state and local agencies including the Future Fisheries program at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the Ravalli County Resource Advisory Committee, the Western Native Trout Initiative; and by private donors.
Michelle McGree with FWP said this is a good example of public/private partnerships that the Future Fisheries program likes to see. They typically help with anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000, with an average in the $20,000 ballpark.
“We get a lot of these projects where there’s a history of livestock use and erosion, and we help the ranchers work to restore the streams,” McGree said. “We allow people to do in-kind matching dollars, so if they want to put a fence up using their equipment, it can help lower the costs.
“When people get to know these projects, they recognize that doing this is a lot easier than they thought. Often they don’t realize the money is out there to help them do this.”
Barber estimates that the total cost of the project is around $100,000, but the in-kind donations and volunteer work brought the actual cost closer to the $50,000 to $60,000 range. She notes that there’s a volunteer day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 22, where they need help installing protective cages around plants to keep critters from nibbling on the willows and existing shrubs.
“We can meet in Hamilton to carpool, so we’re asking people to RSVP,” she said. “That way we also know how many lunches we need.”
The number to RSVP is 375-2272.
In October, they expect to plant about 460 additional native shrubs and trees, including dogwoods, woods roses, and Bebb willows and western snowberry. Volunteers also will be needed for that project.
“We’re grateful to the entire Wetzsteon family for all they’ve done, and continue to do, for the health and vitality of the Sula basin, the East Fork of the Bitterroot River and beyond,” Barber said. “Projects like this make a lasting impact and they wouldn’t be possible without willing and interested landowners who want to make a difference for their property and their community.”