Restoring Westslope Cutthroat Trout in Montana’s Blackfoot River Valley

Written by: Ryen Neudecker

Blackfoot River
Photo by Jim Streeter

The Blackfoot Valley is a special place. If you’ve been lucky enough to spend a day wading or floating the river, the gin clear water reflecting a kaleidoscope of river bed colors didn’t disappoint. And no doubt the aspens and cottonwoods starting to turn made you take a second look as you gazed upstream. People familiar with this place have their favorite view, favorite bend, favorite run. But to many, the story of the Blackfoot River conservation effort is more compelling than the flash of a cutthroat trout as you set your hook.

Native Trout
Photo by Pat Clayton

The Blackfoot River is 132 miles long with over 1,900 miles of perennial streams feeding the river. Five trout species live here—including the native westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout. When people ask for a fishing report, they typically focus on the river. And similarly, many are surprised when they learn that folks working together to restore native trout populations in this valley work mostly on the tributaries to the river. “Why would you spend your time here?” is often asked as we are standing near a stream you can step across.

Blackfoot Stream tour
Photo by Megan Brown

The answer is simple. Over 25 years of data collection has led to an understanding of this place and recognition that the tributaries are the lifeblood to the river. The overall health and function of these small feeder streams will be reflected in the number of trout caught by a lucky angler fishing the Blackfoot River.

Since the effort began in the late 1980’s, over 200 tributaries have been inventoried and close to 85 have received some kind of restoration work.

Photo by Ron Pierce

The projects have ranged from channel reconstruction, riparian restoration, water conservation, fish passage, grazing management and fish screening. Results have been dramatic in many cases (a 15 degree decrease in water temperatures two months post project, or a complete displacement of non-native trout by westslope cutthroat trout). Other monitoring data has revealed steady and very encouraging population increases over 20 years of study, such as bull trout redd counts increasing 800% compared with baseline numbers.

Bull Trout Redd
Photo by Ron Pierce

Still other results have shown us techniques that need to be tweaked and refined for future projects. We are always learning something new—restoration is a young science, but so far the effort in the Blackfoot is steadily moving us closer to our big-picture goal of restoring native trout populations.

Pearson Creek is one tributary with strong potential to support populations of westslope cutthroat trout. Nestled in the middle Blackfoot watershed, it feeds the Chamberlain Creek Watershed which has been the focus of a wide range of native trout conservation actions for over 20 years. Projects have included the restoration of instream habitat, riparian grazing changes, protection of instream flows through water leases, the reclamation of stream-side roads and the placement of conservation easements on all private and State lands within the basin. These activities have converted Chamberlain Creek from a highly degraded tributary…

Chamberlain Creek Before
Photo by Ron Pierce

…to a stream supporting a healthy westslope cutthroat trout population, which now includes a large migratory population from the Blackfoot River.

Chamberlain Creek After
Photo by Ron Pierce

In fact, fisheries data indicates that Chamberlain Creek is now the most important spawning tributary for westslope cutthroat trout in the middle Blackfoot River. This section of river also supports a robust population of anglers who report fishing has never been better.

This leads us to Pearson Creek and another opportunity to restore habitat conditions in a watershed where the life-histories of native, wild trout rely upon healthy and functioning tributaries. Pearson Creek is Chamberlain Creek’s largest tributary and has also been the focus of many cutthroat trout conservation projects including a donated water lease, channel and riparian restoration, and grazing management projects. Despite these changes, the recovery of westslope cutthroat trout in Pearson Creek continued to be hampered by an impaired reach of channel and an undersized culvert that was blocking fish passage and adding to the overall channel impairment. Working with a host of partners, we implemented a comprehensive project that utilized many different “tools” to restore westslope cutthroat trout habitat. Our overall goal is to increase populations within Pearson Creek, Chamberlain Creek and the Blackfoot River.

In order to meet restoration objectives, we implemented four main project elements:
1) Over 1,200 feet of new channel was constructed replacing a severely impaired reach.

Pearson Impaired Reach
Photo by Trout Unlimited

Using tracked equipment, we created a new channel complete with pools, riffles and glides. We enhanced pool habitat complexity,using wood from the ranch.

Pearson Creek reconstructed
Photo by Trout Unlimited

2) We replaced the old undersized culvert with a larger box culvert, restoring cutthroat access to the upper seven miles of the creek.

Pearson Culvert Before
Photo by Trout Unlimited

Pearson Culvert with new box culvert installed
Photo by Trout Unlimited

3) To ensure a stable and functioning riparian zone, we placed native sod mats and willow cuttings along the new stream banks and willows, hawthorne and alders were also transplanted to the outside bends to provide additional stability, cover and shading.

4) Finally, to support the ranch’s cattle operation and protect the recovering stream channel, we constructed a riparian fence along the new project area.

We completed the project in early July of this year. We spent the next few months watering the newly transplanted sods and willows to ensure that the hot days wouldn’t get the better of our revegetation efforts. Part of the new channel winds through an aspen grove and on a post-project walkthrough we discovered literally hundreds of young aspen shoots popping up all across the floodplain.

Aspen shoots on Pearson
Photo by Trout Unlimited

Education continues to be an important part of our projects and in September, students from the local Ovando School visited the project. In addition to learning about water leasing and grazing management, they were very excited to observe Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks sample cutthroat trout that had recently colonized the new habitat.

Ovando School site visit to Pearson Creek
Photo by Trout Unlimited

The students also helped install browse protection cages around the new transplants—an important step to allow these shrubs and trees to get above browse height in an area with a healthy deer and elk population.

As in other pursuits, it takes a village to complete this kind of ambitious restoration project. A diverse group of project partners including the Heart-Heart Ranch, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, USFWS Partners for Fish & Wildlife, the Charles Engelhard Foundation, Trout Unlimited Embrace-a-Stream, the Orvis Company, Inc., North Powell County and Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited (BBCTU) combined resources and expertise to develop and implement a project that will improve water quality, instream habitat, fish passage, riparian conditions and ultimately the status of westslope cutthroat trout in a watershed where these fish are making their way towards recovery.

We’ll spend the next several years collecting post-project data to ensure that we are on the right path towards meeting these objectives. For updates on this project and to learn more about our collaborative work, please visit BBCTU’s website and like us on Facebook.

3 thoughts on “Restoring Westslope Cutthroat Trout in Montana’s Blackfoot River Valley”

  1. Pingback: Trout Tuesday, Blackfoot River Westslope Cutthroat | Watts Up Outdoors

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