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Ninemile Creek reclamation to continue this fall as mining damage dwindles

Spawning trout in a restored section of the Ninemile Creek watershed. (Trout Unlimited)

Work to restore the Ninemile Creek watershed from damage caused by past mining activity will continue this fall under a new grant agreement between Missoula County and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

The county this week approved the $437,000 contract along with a separate agreement with Trout Unlimited, which remains the lead sponsor of the reclamation work.

“Work is ongoing and is going well. A large portion of funds from this grant agreement will actually be put to work this fall,” said Juniper Davis, manager of the county’s Parks, Trails & Open Lands Program. “The remaining funds will be used in the spring. We should expend the funds next year.”

Trout Unlimited and a list of partners have spent the past six years restoring the Ninemile Creek watershed from the mainstem up to the tributaries that provide quality habitat for spawning fish and other species.

Past mining activity disconnected several Ninemile tributaries and left an unnatural and broken habitat before restoration.

The work, intended to restore decades of mining and dredging that scoured gold off the bottom of what once was Glacial Lake Missoula, has taken place in phases over the years, adding up to around $4.5 million.

Work planned this fall marks the fourth phase of the ongoing cleanup effort, which has already improved eight different tributaries within the watershed.

“The destruction of the watershed led to erosion, increased stream temperatures, and prevented bull trout and native Westslope cutthroat trout from getting to their native spawning grounds,” said Davis.

“This restoration work includes the contouring the old slag piles and dredge ponds and reconnecting the Ninemile in highly a impacted section through a naturally meandering stream that’s able to support fish and wildlife in that area.”

In 2004, Trout Unlimited, Missoula County and the Lolo National Forest launched their campaign to reclaim the Ninemile’s abandoned mining sites and restore the landscape to a more natural condition.

The work picked up in earnest 2014 and has been playing out every summer since. For every mile of restoration, around one acre feet of additional groundwater enters Ninemile Creek each day at base flow.

The work also has reduced the sediment load by 860 tons a year.

“It’s remarkable to go from a place that’s been effected and see how deep these scours are and how weird it really looks, and very unnatural,” Kylie Paul, the natural resources specialist for Missoula County, said in July. “To then see what’s been done, even in a year or two, it looks very natural.”