Laura Lundquist

HALL (Missoula Current) - On Monday afternoon, Trout Unlimited project manager Teresa Scanlon waited along a dry stretch of Flint Creek and listened. Cottonwood leaves rustled in the breeze that would soon carry winter weather from the northwest, but she heard little else. Then the sound of wind was joined by a burble, as water once again worked its way down the stream channel near Hall.

About five minutes earlier, upstream from where Scanlon stood, workers with Ovando-based TNT Excavating had breached the small, earthen dam that had diverted the stream for about six weeks while they worked to restore about a mile of Flint Creek. Scanlon was pleased as she watched the returning waters wind around rebuilt stream bends and flow over new riffles into deep pools that the River Design Group had envisioned.

“Our project goals are looking at repairing the riparian habitat and increasing stream channel sinuosity,” Scanlon said. “As we had the over-widening and straightening effect from a lot of grazing, we have lost that sinuosity. We’re hoping by adding (more curves), we’ll slow the water down and allow the erosive power of the water to scour the pools.”

The mile-long project is the second phase of an effort to restore lower Flint Creek to improve habitat for both fish and wildlife. Two years ago, Scanlon and her team restored a half-mile stretch farther downstream to serve as a demonstration project so landowners could see the benefits of restoration. That led to two landowners granting approval for the current project.

“In the lower reach, (Flint Creek) is functioning at only 20% of its historical fish counts. So this effort is focused on ‘let’s improve Flint so we recruit more fish,’” Scanlon said. “By improving habitat in Flint Creek and providing improved overwintering habitat, we’re hoping to improve recruitment into the Clark Fork.”

Work on Flint Creek started about a decade ago when the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program identified Flint Creek as a priority spawning tributary of the Clark Fork River, especially the 3- to 5-mile stretch from Hall south to the Boulder Creek confluence. Boulder Creek adds a lot of water to Flint Creek so that stretch is an important native trout corridor with westslope cutthroat trout and the occasional migrating bull trout. And like the Clark Fork River, Flint Creek bears the scars of mining and agricultural use.

So Trout Unlimited conducted a riparian assessment about five years ago, and the two projects are the start of work to improve riparian and stream conditions.

Restoration work on Flint Creek. (Photo courtesy of Trout Unlimited)
Restoration work on Flint Creek. (Photo courtesy of Trout Unlimited)

Last year, during the design phase, River Design Group identified one area where cattle had repeatedly wandered through the stream, making it flat and wide. Water would slow and warm up, and particles would drop to the bottom, making it silty. Nearby, designers noticed an ancient bend in the stream channel that the water had deserted. So that was the one area of major construction to restore the bend and create a floodplain where the wide section had been. In the rest of the stretch, workers rebuilt the banks, reinforcing them with wood and brush.

They also planted more native trees and shrubs throughout 10 acres of riparian and wetland habitat, which they fenced to restore the vegetation that has suffered from years of trampling.

“When we talk to landowners, the mutual benefits are the streambank stabilization components. We know there’s this balance between knowing streams want to move around but these are still working landscapes. So if we can help to stabilize them a little but still provide good habitat, that’s the best case scenario so we don’t just have rip-rapped stream banks that actually can exacerbate downstream erosion,” Scanlon said. “We’re allowing most areas to remain as pasture. We’ll just be protecting the riparian area for 4-10 years. Afterward, we can reevaluate whether we might want to try rotational grazing.”

Restoration work on Flint Creek. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
Restoration work on Flint Creek. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Work on this second project cost around $350,000. Funding came from the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program and the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Future Fisheries program for fisheries work and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for work to reduce sediment from erosion and improve water quality. Nonprofit groups, including Trout Unlimited chapters from Missoula and Butte, the Trout and Salmon Foundation and the Wild Turkey Federation, also kicked in money.

“We’re looking at expanding and doing a third phase, so that this trajectory becomes every other year. We’re already working with landowners along a mile-and-a-half stretch upstream. We’ll be doing survey and design work and hopefully do construction on that project in 2025,” Scanlon said. “We trying to take a holistic approach in the upper Clark Fork. You can’t restore everything so we’re trying to find strategic locations where we can get the most bang for the buck.”

Created in 1990 to oversee Montana’s lawsuit against the Atlantic Richfield Company for damage from the Anaconda Company’s mines to the Upper Clark Fork River Basin, the Natural Resource Damage Program has been involved in other lawsuits dealing with Superfund actions and oversees the money awarded from such rulings.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at