Cutthroat Reintroduction is the ‘Cherry on Top’ of Collaborative Project
This post was written by Big Hole Watershed Committee Program Manager Ben LaPorte.
I always look forward to making the trip into the East Fork of Divide Creek. Nestled up high and back into the Highland Mountains, south of Butte, lays this beautiful headwaters mountain stream. Surrounded by lodgepole pine, spruce, and giant granite boulders, the East Fork of Divide starts its journey to the Big Hole River here in a narrow mountain valley. It’s always an adventure getting up and into the East Fork of Divide. A steep, 45-minute bushwhack through thick lodgepole downfall or a 45-minute technical ATV ride up and over boulder sprinkled ridges…have your choice.
Today I was on an ATV, and I was more excited than usual to make the adventurous trip up. I was meeting Lance Breen, a Fisheries Technician with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. Our mission was to take 200 Westslope Cutthroat trout fry (from the Anaconda Fish Hatchery) up and introduce them into the upper reaches of East Fork Divide Creek. There are no fish in the upper section of stream. Below the upper reach, is a naturally steep, rocky cascade that is impeding fish to swim up and colonize its water. The populations of Westslope Cutthroat are on the decline in Montana, due to a multitude of different reasons including habitat loss and competition of introduced non-native fish. Introducing Westslope into a protected stream, above a natural downstream barrier such as the East Fork of Divide is just one of many strategies FWP implements to conserve this native fish.
We strapped the cooler full of fish and a couple of 5 gallon buckets to the back of my ATV and we were off. After a frigid 45-minute ride and a couple of wrong turns later, Lance and I made it to the stream. Not knowing the order of operations, I followed Lance’s lead. We simply transferred the fry from the cooler to a five-gallon bucket and walked down to the stream to find a good spot for their new home. We quickly found a nice pool of slow moving water. The moment we have all been waiting for! After a ceremonious head nod to me, Lance slowly poured the fish into the stream. I could see the fish disperse like wildfire in their new wild home. The moment was one to cherish. The first time Westslope Cutthroat have ever been in this stream. The first population of Westlope to hopefully establish and thrive in the headwaters of the Big Hole. Lance summed up the moment perfectly: “Do good things cutty, do good things.”
As we rode back to the trucks, I was overcome with a sense of accomplishment. This fish introduction effort was a byproduct of a larger project the BHWC implemented in the East Fork Divide last spring. Last May, as part of a project to increase natural water storage, the BHWC teamed up with the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest to patch historic beaver dams in the same stretch of creek. A total of 12 abandoned beaver dams were plugged, slowing surface and groundwater that improved natural water storage capabilities and wildlife habitat. Last spring, the BHWC also installed a similar project downstream on private property to address similar natural water storage solutions.
The accumulation of good working partnerships and valued relationships made these projects possible. One stream, projects on multiple ownerships, multiple resource concerns addressed. This type of “watershed approach” embodies the BHWC model of recovery, restoration and stewardship, but also demonstrations the collaborative spirit in the Big Hole. The multiple projects, partners and restoration efforts on East Fork Divide is something to be proud of. The introduction of these little fish into the stream was just another cherry on top!
Ben LaPorte is the Program Manager for the Big Hole Watershed Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org