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Collaborative tributary restoration ensures health of entire fishery

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By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer

BIG SKY – Construction on a two-phased stream restoration project on Dry Creek, a tributary of the East Gallatin River northeast of Bozeman, began in November, representing notable collaboration between NGOs, private landowners and state agencies.

Scott Bosse, the northern Rockies director for American Rivers, which is the largest river conservation organization in the country, said the project’s two phases will accomplish two major goals: improving instream riparian habitat along portions of Dry Creek that have been degraded over years, and reconnecting the tributary to the East Gallatin during low-flow periods, such as the summer and fall. Together, these would improve connectivity of the entire fishery, benefiting the watershed as far downstream as the Missouri River.

Historically, Dry Creek petered out before reaching the East Gallatin during summer and fall months, Bosse explained. Reconnecting the waterway in these times gives larger migratory trout—especially brown trout, which spawn in the fall—the ability to move up from the Missouri and spawn in the little tributary. Colder, cleaner water flow out of these tributaries, and the gravel is the right size for trout to leave eggs behind.

Stephen Carlson, a private equity real estate investor and an avid sportsman who owns land along Dry Creek, reached out to Bosse and American Rivers about restoring the tributary in 2015.

“I had the vision because I knew about, from my own personal experiences fishing Dry Creek, it was a crackerjack little fishery, but I also knew from my background as an experienced fly fisherman that Dry Creek represented the sacred headwaters of the Missouri River,” Carlson said.

Bosse and American Rivers talked through the restoration process with Carlson, drawing to his attention other sources of funding and connecting him to project partners such as Trout Unlimited’s Pat Byorth.

Byorth and Trout Unlimited took the lead in writing grant applications to various funding sources, such as the Future Fisheries Improvement Program administered by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which provides funds for projects that protect or improve wild fish habitat. According to FWP, “between $350,000 and $650,000 are available each year for projects that revitalize wild fish populations,” a portion of which comes from Montana fishing licenses.

A $50,000 Future Fisheries grant paired with financial commitments from landowners like Carlson allowed the project to go forward, according to Montana Outdoors, a publication by Montana FWP.

The first phase of the project on Dry Creek involved stabilizing the streambank, narrowing the channel to create a deeper channel, and replanting native vegetation such as willows. These all combine to reverse the repercussions of cattle grazing on the small tributary, which had caused the channel to become shallow and wide, bereft of shadowing vegetation and prone to silt, all of which are unfavorable to coldwater fish spawning.

The second phase involves a small-scale fish ladder designed by Allied Engineering Services in Bozeman, which bypasses an irrigation ditch that bisects Dry Creek. The canal diverts all the water from the creek during low-flow times of year, barring fish upstream passage back to larger arteries of the Gallatin Watershed. Bosse explained that the first phase is key to the effectiveness of the second phase.

“Reconnecting Dry Creek to the East Gallatin River during low-flow times of the year will open up new spawning habitat for bigger migratory trout,” he said. “Because that tributary spawning habitat has been restored over the past year, the return on investment for the entire project will be maximized.” Bosse added that it would be a wash to open the door to migratory trout only to give them access to suboptimal habitat.

After the expected completion in January, the two-fold project will allow trout to access the colder water of Dry Creek when other parts of the river reach lethally high temperatures. According to Bosse, when waterways exceed 68 F for several days, coldwater fish can begin to die unless they find coldwater refuge.

Seeking these coldwater refuges has “always been part of their lifecycle, but as climate change tightens its grip on the region, these coldwater tributaries are even more important for trout,” Bosse said.

As the understanding of fisheries has improved, the importance of keeping river systems robust has become increasingly apparent.

“These small tributaries are the lifeblood of rivers like the East Gallatin, the Yellowstone and Madison, and without the tributaries, without that intact network of cold, clean water connected, the health of the systems suffers,” Byorth said.

In the eyes of Scott Gillilan, a hydrologist and the lead consultant hired by Carlson, the project represents an impressive example of cooperation between various stakeholders. He said the question was, “How can we make the fish win, how can we make the irrigators win?”

Yet, after three years of what he called delicate negotiation, the stars aligned for the restoration project to become a reality to the benefit of all parties involved. He said it shows how conservationists can play ball with irrigators to make things right.

Carlson compared the final product to a three-legged stool, allowing connectivity in the fishery, which increases its resilience and overall health; improving fishing on a far-reaching scale all the way down to the Missouri, which also represents a significant economic benefit to the region; and creates predictability for the agriculturists drawing water from the Dry Creek canal bisecting the tributary.

“It’s important to recognize that this is a resource that we need to husband, and we need to manage and we need to improve, and hopefully our goal is to improve it for future generations,” Carlson said. “You can probably get a permit to build another golf course and you can probably get a permit—if you got deep enough pockets and enough time—get a permit for another ski area, but … you can’t get a permit for a stream or a creek or a river. Mother nature makes that.”

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