Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Over the past century, the Blackfoot Valley has been a source of livelihood for many but hasn’t always been treated well. Now, with the help of some partners and federal money, some areas will be restored to a healthier condition.

On Wednesday, Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning stood near Belmont Creek, a Blackfoot River tributary, and looked out over a grassy meadow that has changed much over 20 years. Once, it provided hay for early homesteaders but the forest had begun to reclaim the field by the end of the 1990s, even though Belmont Creek was barely a trickle.

Now, the field is open once again, and Belmont Creek has widened to create a wetter riparian corridor, thanks to restoration work the BLM started in 2003. With restoration money from the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, the meadow will morph again.

BLM botanists have discovered that blue camas thrived there before settlers arrived, and members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes would like to see the edible flowers return.

A year after the Inflation Reduction Act was passed, Stone-Manning has returned to her hometown of Missoula to celebrate the $27 million that Montana has received for restoration work in three regions: the Blackfoot-Clark Fork, the Missouri Headwaters, and the Hi-Line Sagebrush Anchor near Fort Peck. Each project and investment will be landscape-specific. The money can be distributed either as matching grants to organizations and communities or the BLM can use the money to do work itself.

The Blackfoot-Clark Fork region was allocated $9.54 million, and $1.5 million of that is going to three organizations doing work in the Blackfoot Valley. Some of that money may help to bring back the blue camas of Belmont Creek.

“The incredible landscape that we’re in now are the treaty-rights lands of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and much of our work is done to fulfill our trust responsibilities,” Stone-Manning said. “We recently finalized a Good Neighbor authority agreement with the tribes. The tribes will expand their partnership with the BLM so they can restore cultural landscapes and traditional food sources in both the forests and grasslands of the Blackfoot watershed. That is the first Good Neighbor agreement between tribes and the BLM.”

Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning chats Wednesday with Jim Stone of the Blackfoot Challenge about the Inflation Reduction Act projects.
Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning chats Wednesday with Jim Stone of the Blackfoot Challenge about the Inflation Reduction Act projects. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

BLM botanist Jennifer McNew said the CSKT managed the Blackfoot area naturally for centuries before European settlers brought in more industrial uses, from farming to logging and mining. Now, the BLM, along with The Nature Conservancy and the CSKT, are trying to restore the lands for traditional uses like hunting and plant harvesting as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Reserved Treaty Right Lands Program.

“It allows tribes to tell land managers managing land in their aboriginal territory but outside their reservation what they want to see on the landscape,” McNew said. “The tribes told us they want to enhance and restore blue camas and bitterroot habitat. So The Nature Conservancy has been doing great work with that, and the BLM has inventoried this restoration landscape looking for existing populations of camas and bitterroot.”

Restoration of indigenous cultural attributes such as native plants and bull trout is one of four priorities the BLM has chosen for restoration projects and funding. The other three are forest health and resiliency, riparian health and recreation resiliency.

BLM project manager Claire Romanko said “recreation resiliency” involves travel management planning issues such as developing secure habitat for wildlife and removing roads from valley bottoms to improve stream health.

“The BLM manages only 7% of the (Blackfoot) river. But with the partners who are standing here today - the Forest Service, state agencies, TNC lands, as well as some of our private partners - we maybe have the ability to have a transformational outcome on 55% of the stream. You guys represent that much more impact than what we could do alone,” Romanko said.

The Blackfoot Challenge, Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Clark Fork Coalition are three partner organizations who will each receive $500,000 of the Inflation Reduction Act money to start projects next year. The organizations are currently finalizing agreements with the BLM.

The Clark Fork Coalition is focusing on improving all the dirt roads, and the culverts that run beneath them, to stop them from sending sediment into Gold and Belmont creeks. The old culverts are usually too small so they tend to plug up, sending water over the roads and adding to sediment problems in the streams.

Clark Fork Coalition project manager Adam Switalski said the work is similar to what the Clark Fork Coalition has done in working lands in the Bitterroot Valley. They will assess all the roads and identify the most problematic.

“They typically are old streamside roads, which were the first to be constructed nearly 100 years ago because they were the easiest to build. But they’re the most connected to the streams and can fail into streams,” Switalski said. “Gold Creek, in particular, has been heavily degraded and the endangered bull trout has apparently been extirpated because of the road system and the industrial timber logging and the removal of riparian habitat. We’re essentially going to try to restore those aspects.”

They’ll also try to trap what sediment that ends up in the stream by introducing a lot of woody debris. And they’re hoping that beaver will move in and do some of the work themselves.

Near the intended camas meadow, beavers are already moving into Belmont Creek where the BLM deposited 90 pieces of wood. Most recently, BLM employees counted 18 beaver dams and have seen bull trout spawning.

Farther up the Blackfoot Valley, the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited is trying to improve the quality and quantity of water in Nevada Creek, which flows northwest from the Avon Valley through agricultural lands to meet the Blackfoot River about 5 miles northwest of Helmville.

Ryen Neudecker said she’s been working with the BLM for the past few years, trying to find the most effective places to do stream work, which turns out to be Nevada Creek and its tributaries. That’s where Trout Unlimited has already worked with private landowners to restore 6 miles of stream by repairing eroding stream banks and restoring floodplains to eliminate sediment without impinging on agricultural operations.

“If the tributaries aren’t functioning (to recruit fish), then the fish population in the river reflects that. Nevada Creek is the largest tributary to the middle Blackfoot, and that is where the fishery falls off,” Neudecker said. “For about 13 years, we’ve been investing a lot of time in that area so we have all that momentum. This is just going to build on that.”

Tracy Stone Manning. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
Tracy Stone Manning. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

The Blackfoot Challenge will also be working with private landowners to improve riparian resiliency along other creeks in the valley and to eliminate livestock carcasses and other carnivore attractants as part of the Wildlife Conflict Reduction Program. Clancy Jandreau, Blackfoot Challenge water steward, said the organization will also do project monitoring to document the changes in the valley and inform adaptive management.

“We can help tell the story of the changes that are happening in this landscape and continuing the legacy of partnership and collaboration that is here,” Jandreau said.

Sonya Germann, BLM Montana-Dakotas director, remembered coming to a spot high above Belmont Creek a year ago, just after the Inflation Reduction Act was passed. She and Stone-Manning looked across the wild peaks of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and over into the Jocko Primitive Area where man’s hand was less evident. Looking south, even though the Blackfoot Valley had obviously borne the brunt of development, it holds the promise of restoration.

“The Blackfoot is emblematic, it’s been emblematic for thousands of years and is still today. And it serves as the gold standard for collaboration and partnership,” Germann said. “This is just the beginning of this next stage of work. I want to thank President Biden, Secretary Holland and Director Stone-Manning for recognizing the power of our work together. They’re not only choosing to invest in the landscape, they’re investing in us.”

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