Blackfoot, snubbed in ‘A River Runs Through It,’ worthy of sequelSource: Great Falls Tribune
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Karl Puckett , email@example.com
The Blackfoot River, hard hit for decades by various sources of pollution, is on the mend after being snubbed 25 years ago in “A River Runs Through It,” the film in which it was the supposed star, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Big Blackfoot chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Ryen Neudecker, restoration coordinator for the TU Big Blackfoot chapter in Missoula, credits 750 restoration projects worth more than $15 million with reviving the river, its tributaries and native trout that inhabit both.
“You look at the cumulative effects of those projects, and what that means to the overall river system, it’s pretty encouraging,” Neudecker says.
This fall the group will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its formation, which came in response to the river’s pollution problems including overfishing, poor grazing practices, logging, runoff from highways, dewatering and mine contamination,
The Blackfoot River spans 132 miles from Rogers Pass on the Continental Divide to its junction with the Clark Fork River near Missoula.
It was featured in Norman Maclean’s 1976 novella “A River Runs Through it” and Robert Redford’s 1992 film of the same name.
The movie wasn’t filmed on Blackfoot, in part because of its ailing condition, but the river is regaining its star power, Neudecker says.
“If they were going to do a sequel to ‘A River Runs Through it,’ the Blackfoot of today would be a perfect place to show off Norman, his story, his vision, on what the river should look like,” Neudecker says.
Restoration began with the formation of the The Big Black Foot TU chapter in 1987 and many of the projects have since been funneled through that organization, which has allowed for streamlining to save money and time, Neudecker says. It’s also ensured local contractors are hired.
The chapter works with private groups such as the Blackfoot Challenge, The Nature Conservancy, government wildlife agencies such as Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and some 250 landowners.
Proof that the river is getting healthy again is in the native trout populations, which are the river’s equivalent to canaries in the coal mine, Neudecker said.
“If they are present, we know things are working,” Neudecker said. “If they are not, we know there’s something we need to address.”
To thrive, trout need the four “Cs” — clean water, cold water, complex habitat featuring wood, undercut banks and riparian areas and connectivity allowing them to migrate great distances to spawning grounds.
“Anything that’s going to benefit native trout,” Neudecker says of the type of projects TU pursues with its partners to achieve those qualities.
It’s working, says Ron Pierce, a FWP fisheries biologist who manages the Blackfoot River.
Trout are returning in greater numbers thanks to catch and release regulations implemented in 1990, and the cooperative restoration efforts, Pierce said.
“Through that 30-year history of restoration and conservation work, things have improved basinwide, and I think the best measure of that is what we see in the Blackfoot River,” Pierce said.
For example, the biomass of westslope cutthroat trout in the 19.5-mile stretch of the middle Blackfoot between the North Fork Blackfoot River and the Clearwater River was 26 pounds per 1,000 feet in 2016.
In 1989, there were .88 pounds of native westslope cutthroat trout per 1,000 feet along that same stretch.
It’s the greatest improvement in trout numbers on the river, Pierce said.
That increase is not just important for the health of the fishery in the middle Blackfoot.
“That was the first big thing we’ve learned in telemetry studies is most of the fish that occupy the lower Blackfoot come from tributaries in the middle Blackfoot River,” Pierce said.
In 1989, surveys showed .46 pounds of cutthroat trout per 1,000 feet in lower Blackfoot.
When that area was surveyed in 2016, FWP biologists found 10.8 pounds per 1,000 feet.
Positive trends also have been noted in bull trout numbers in primary spawning tributaries, Pierce said.
However, bull trout in lower-elevation tributaries don’t seem to have as much resilience, he added.
Pierce attributes bull trout struggles in some areas to remaining problems tied to past industrial timber practices, roads and culverts. Climate change also is causing less snowpack and longer and warmer summers, and that’s affecting bull trout habitat, too, he said.
Restoration of the Blackfoot began 30 years ago this fall.
One of the biggest problems affecting the river was toxic mine waste at the old Mike Horse Mine in the headwaters of the Blackfoot east of Lincoln.
The 50-acre mining complex was mined for lead and zinc intermittently from 1889 to the 1950s and left behind mountains of mine waste that continually polluted tributaries leading into the main river.
Pierce calls it an “ecological disaster area.”
Now it’s getting cleaned up.
Shellie Haaland of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, construction manager for the complex, said trucks have hauled 600,000 yards of tailings to a repository, with 400,000 left to haul over the next two years.
At the complex, 2,500 feet of new stream in the Mike Horse Creek area and 1,700 feet in upper Beartrap Creek, almost to the confluence of the Blackfoot corridor, have been installed.
“We have literally excavated everything that was in those two valleys down to basically native clean material,” Haaland said. “Then we have rebuilt or constructed stream for those reaches.”
The next step in that $39 million cleanup will be the removal of contamination in the Blackfoot River corridor and then building a new creek channel along with revegetation, Haaland said.
Smaller restoration projects spearheaded by the Big Blackfoot TU chapter and its partners have been ongoing for decades.
Improvements in irrigation diversion systems are examples of the type of restoration work that’s occurring up and down the Blackfoot.
Farmers and ranchers use those diversion systems to move water from the river and tributaries into ditches where it’s used to irrigate hay and pasture land.
Sometimes fish end up in those ditches.
“They would go where the water was, so they would enter the ditches and, depending on how those ditches were managed, there were substantial losses of fish,” Pierce said.
Those fish won’t spawn, which lowers fish recruitment, and they might not make it out of the ditches themselves.
Since restoration began, 39 fish screens have been installed that allow water to be pulled down the irrigation ditches without pulling in the fish, too.
“This is a generational project,” Pierce said.
Westlope cutthroat trout, Montana’s state fish, once ranged all across western Montana as well as the Upper Missouri River drainage, but hybridization with rainbow and Yellowstone cutthroat trout and habitat loss and degradation has seriously reduced its range.
Bull trout, listed as a threatened species, can’t tolerate high sediment levels in their spawning streams.
In the Blackfoot, work on saving the imperiled species has been concentrated on 1,900 miles of tributaries in the 2,320 square-mile watershed where the fish spawn.
“Those fish need those tributaries,” Pierce said. “That’s the best measure of how sensitive we are to the needs of the fish.”
It’s been documented that trout move up to 90 miles to get to their spawning beds, Neudecker said.
For example, cutthroat, distinguished by the red or pink slash beneath the jaw, ascend tributaries to build nests where they deposit eggs when flows begin to recede. Males come along and fertilize the eggs. Then the adults out-migrate back to the Blackfoot River. Those eggs will be in a safe environment until they hatch in July.
It’s not just irrigation diversions that have hindered trout populations in the Blackfoot, Pierce said.
Pipes or culverts in streams that run underneath roads can be barriers, too.
Culverts increase the water velocity, and trout steer clear.
Increased velocity of water flow also causes stream erosion causing culverts and pipes to perch higher above the stream, and fish can’t jump high enough to get through.
“It kind of disconnects everything,” Neudecker says.
More than 700 miles of fish passage barriers have been removed.
To address dewatering of streams, TU also works with ranchers to save water which leaves more water for fish.
“One of the most important tools we have are water leases,” Neudecker said.
That’s the ability of irrigators to lease a water right for beneficial uses such as instream flows that benefit fish.
Water conservation projects have occurred on 41 tributaries equating to 49 cubic feet per second of water saved.
Other projects involve narrowing and deepening channels in streams that have become too straight and wide causing erosion and temperature increases. The channels get shallow because of the sediment, which causes more exposure to the sun and thus the temperature increases, Neudecker says. Also, the fish no longer have places to hide in pools and bank undercuts.
“A River Runs Through It” was released in 1992.
It was filmed mostly on the Gallatin River in southwestern Montana, not the Blackfoot River in west-central Montana where Maclean focused his story.
At the time, the Blackfoot was getting a lot of bad press for how polluted it was, Pierce said.
“The river’s reputation just took a major hit,” Pierce said.
But five years before the release of the film, efforts already had begun to turn the tide.
In 1987, the Blackfoot chapter of TU was formed for a variety of reasons.
At the time, a gold mine was proposed near the headwaters near the Continental Divide. Landowners and outfitters in the Blackfoot Valley were concerned about degradation of riparian habitat and overfishing. In 1975, at the Mike Horse Mine, a dam constructed across Beartrap Creek in 1941 to trap mining waste in an impoundment failed sending toxic heavy metals into the creek and the upper Blackfoot River.
“It’s hard to believe this, but there weren’t any FWP biologists up in the Blackfoot doing any kind of inventory or monitoring,” Neudecker says.
One of the first things The Big Blackfoot TU chapter did was raise money that FWP used to hire two biologists to conduct an inventory of the Blackfoot River and its tributaries.
One of those biologists was Don Peters, who later hired Pierce in 1989.
“He was the one who changed the working environment for FWP to get us out there and working on private land restoration,” Pierce said of Peters.
Peters wrote a story that was published in Montana Outdoors magazine. To turn the Blackfoot River around, he wrote, work was needed in the spawning tributaries. The mines needed to be cleaned up. Improvements were needed in agricultural irrigation systems and grazing practices.
“If you are going to be effective at recovery of these fish, you need to look at all the limiting factors,” Pierce said, calling Peters a visionary biologist who recognized the river’s potential to recover. “You have to take a big picture view.”
And while restoration has focused on private lands at lower elevations of the basin, restoration is now expanding to industrial timberlands and public lands following the transfers of former Plum Creek Timber Co. lands to The Nature Conservancy and public ownership.
Some people are leery of working with the group, particularly if government money is being used for the projects, Neudecker said.
An estimated 30 year’s worth of restoration remains, she estimates.
A celebration to mark the first 30 years of successful restoration and the anniversary of the founding of the Big Blackfoot chapter of TU is planned Sept. 17 in Seeley Lake where some of the early leaders will be honored.
“There’s a lot of issues we haven’t been able to address yet, but I guess we kind of look at it as one project at a time,” Neudecker said.
Norman Maclean Festival
The Norman Maclean Festival is Sept. 8-10 in Seeley Lake and Missoula. Remembering the Blackfoot: Blackfoot Valley History on Native American history, valley geology, tales from Blackfoot Valley ranches and three decades of river restoration is planned Sept. 8 at the Double Arrow Lodge in Seeley Lake; Spirit of the Blackfoot: Literature from the Headwaters, is Sept. 9 at the Double Arrow; and From the Book to the Big Screen: A River Runs Through It, is planned Sept. 10 at the Wilma Theater in Missoula. Actor Tom Skerritt, producer Patrick Markey and screenwriter Richard Friedenberg have confirmed they will attend.