Ninemile mine reclamation continues notching small victories, big tales

Restoration work along Upper Ninemile Creek. (Courtesy photo)

The story has the fish waiting at the gates when access was opened to a tributary up Ninemile Creek for the first time in nearly a century. And while it’s only a story, it may bear some truth.

Over the past few years, Missoula County has worked in conjunction with Trout Unlimited and the Lolo National Forest to reclaim the Ninemile Creek watershed from past mining damage.

Over that time, the work has restored 100 acres of floodplain and two miles of stream, allowing native aquatic species to access spawning grounds that, before the work, were blocked by slag piles and mine tailings.

“At this point, we’ve had so many projects and it’s been long enough we’ve been able to collect data and see results,” said Kali Becher, the county’s natural resource specialist. “It’s exciting to see clear results of increased water storage through all the wetland creation and the fish traveling up tributaries they haven’t had access to for 100 years.”

On Thursday, Missoula County Commissioners signed a letter of certification that could guide another future project. Known as a planning grant, the step is the first in a series of efforts to prepare for a future project near the confluence of McCormick and Little McCormick creeks in the Ninemile watershed.

Mining in the area began in the late 1880s with the discovery of gold and peaked at the turn of the century. Mines in McCormick and Little McCormick creeks were abandoned long ago and left in poor condition.

The mining activity altered the tributaries with dredge ponds and braided channels. Excessive erosion and piles of dredged materials have impeded the floodplain and created barriers to fish migrating upstream.

“This is around where McCormick Creek meets Little McCormick Creek,” said Becher. “Many of our other projects have focused on where tributaries meet the Ninemile, so this is a little farther up due to where the mining impacts are significant.”

The planning grant marks the first step in reclaiming the area to improve water quality and native fish habitat. The county is expected to apply for an implementation grant down the road, though at least one other restoration project sits ahead of it, Becher said.

“We have another project we’ve been awarded the funding for but haven’t done the contracting yet, and that’s for the Huson Placer project up the Ninemile,” Becher said. “It will implemented this summer or next summer. The timing has been a little bit different due to all the budgeting issues happening at the state level, so we’ll see what happens.”

Over the past few years, the partners behind the reclamation work have reclaimed 100 acres of floodplain and restored two miles of stream to native conditions. They’ve also removed 250,000 cubic yards of mine tailings.

“We’re working with Trout Unlimited and the Lolo National Forest on a comprehensive effort to clean up mine waste and restore clean water and healthy fisheries through the Ninemile Creek watershed,” said Becher. “Much of the mining happened in the late 1800s. What we’re doing now is reclaiming some of the impacts.”