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Middle-schoolers, Conservation Corps team up to hunt for nature’s engineers

Middle-school scientists spent a week wading along mountain streams and collecting data under the watchful eyes of two team leaders from the Montana Conservation Corps. (Clark Fork Coalition)

To improve water in the Clark Fork River, it might be time to employ some talented engineers. Especially if they work for free.

Over the past five years, as dam removal and restoration work has improved more Western rivers, agencies and organizations have recognized the benefits that beavers could add to watersheds. So the Lolo National Forest wants to know where and how it might employ such an inexpensive helper, and the Clark Fork Coalition offered to help.

“I know, for the Lolo National Forest, climate and wildfire mitigation are things they’re really looking at. Beaver habitats store water and recharge groundwater so they can be effective at addressing climate change and wildfire,” said Clark Fork Coalition Education Manager Lily Haines.

In 2014, the Clark Fork Coalition conducted a watershed vulnerability assessment for the Lolo National Forest and found several streams with water quality problems, including high water temperatures, dwindling water quantity and sediment pollution.

“Those were the big hits,” Haines said. “Then we said, ‘Wow, there’s this animal that improves all these things – let’s look at beaver to address this vulnerability.”

Beaver dams cause streams to slow down and pool, which can clean the water by causing sediment to drop out. The ponds and surrounding wetlands can offset drought and reduce wildfire risk by keeping vegetation green. In addition, the ponds create good trout and wildlife habitat.

The problem is, due to trapping, damaged habitat or poor water quality, beavers are gone from many streams.

Beavers do paddle up and down the Clark Fork River, especially since the Milltown Dam is gone. But until now, no one really knew whether they also made their homes on tributary streams.

That’s why, for the past two summers, the Clark Fork Coalition has recruited youthful citizen scientists to help the Lolo National Forest learn more about what beaver might do to keep forest streams healthy, particularly in the lower Bitterroot Valley.

The Clark Fork Coalition was able to offer the opportunity to middle school students, thanks to a $25,000 Citizen Science Competitive Funding Program grant this year from U.S. Forest Service. Theirs was one of four applications out of hundreds nationwide to receive the highly competitive grant at the implementation level, after not getting the grant the year before.

So each summer, six middle-school scientists spent a week wading along mountain streams and collecting data under the watchful eyes of two team leaders from the Montana Conservation Corps. A total of 30 students from around Montana learned to collect biological information over the course of five separate weeks this summer.

Haines said the MCC crew leaders come to projects already knowing how to camp in the backcountry. Then, the Clark Fork Coalition spent a week drilling them how to collect the information needed to determine whether each stream has enough good beaver habitat so they could supervise the kids.

“That’s how we can have confidence in this data that’s coming from middle-school kids,” Haines said.

The kids measured stream width and gradient – beavers prefer more level slower-moving sections – stream pool depth, and the trees and vegetation along the stream. Starting at the mouth of the stream, they made measurements every 300 yards for as they could go, as long as stream conditions would still support beavers.

Last summer, they weren’t quite able to finish assessing Lolo Creek and all its tributaries. So this year, one group finished that off while others looked at Miller Creek, Fish Creek west of Missoula and streams in the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area near Deer Lodge.

Fish Creek was important because it’s one of the few streams in western Montana with a trapping ban.

“It allows us to say, ‘Okay, this is what’s going on in areas with trapping, and how does it compare to areas without trapping.’ It gives us our best guess at what historical conditions might have been,” Haines said.

The students completed the final stream assessment last week. Now the data crunching begins. The final product will be a GIS map layer that will show Forest Service managers where good beaver habitat exists along each stream.

“The questions land managers have are basic ones: where are beavers, where have they been historically, and where are areas of high quality habitat where beaver are not found?” Haines said. “We’re lacking a lot of data and in order to get a lot of data, you need a lot of people. The Forest Service is limited in the number of people they can get out on a stream. That’s why it’s such a good fit for citizen science.”

But there’s more to the Lolo National Forest and the watershed than the lower Bitterroot and Spotted Dog, so there’s still more data to gather. Haines said her group is reaching out to other partners, such as the Blackfoot Challenge or Swan Valley Connection, to see if they could sponsor some citizen-science teams to collect data in the Blackfoot drainages.

Then, armed with good information and the best science, certain streams might eventually be managed for beavers, which will then manage the streams for everyone.

Occasionally, landowners concerned about flooding or loss of trees along streams don’t want beavers around. So Clark Fork Coalition employees are working on conflict resolution and tools that reduce flooding such as pond levelers. But on streams where those don’t work, managers could install beaver-dam analogues to create similar conditions to improve streams.

“One of the things they say is beavers is second only to man for their ability to manipulate the environment. Which means they and their habitat can do a lot of work to help us out,” Haines said “And we don’t have to pay them.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.