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Recreational pressure a threat to Rattlesnake restoration area

Conservation Lands Program manager Jeff Gicklhorn tells a Watershed Education Network tour group about the willow cuttings that were used in restoring Rattlesnake Creek above the former dam site. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

The restoration area around the former Rattlesnake Dam is starting to fill in, but some are worried that inconsiderate recreational activity could damage the work that’s been done.

The Watershed Education Network and the Missoula City Parks and Recreation Department this week held a tour of the former Rattlesnake Dam site to allow Missoulians to see what has transpired in the year since the dam was removed.

It was also an opportunity to raise awareness of the potential damage that the area might sustain if visitors don’t take care of it.

“This is an investment and we want to keep it healthy. But we’re seeing increased recreation pressure,’ said Deb Fassnacht, the Watershed Education Network executive director. “Over time, if we have more informal trails like the one across the way that add more sediment to the stream, that creates a lot of issues with the healthy habitat. We kind of are loving the creek to death.”

Among the 16 people who participated in the tour were Rattlesnake neighborhood residents, Missoula Conservation District and Park Side Credit Union members, and citizen scientists with the Watershed Education Network.

Missoula Conservation Lands Program Manager Jeff Gicklhorn and Restoration Tech Molly Anton led the group through the tall wire fence that is intended to keep people and deer out of the former dam area while plants are getting established on the east side of Rattlesnake Creek.

After the site was landscaped a year ago to build the main channel, a few side channels and a wetland area, 200 volunteers spent several days in September planting 12,000 native trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers that had been nurtured in the city’s greenhouses.

Anton said they had collected seed from the area ahead of time, so the plants should be able to thrive as long as they aren’t stepped on. Sediment from the bottom of the reservoir was also spread across the area because it contained a seed bank from plants upstream. Some plants are filling in on their own as a result.

The city has had to do a bit of weeding in the area. But no infestation was too extensive, so volunteers were able to control weeds with hand-pulling.

“This will be a multi-year process – keeping this (fence) up, maintaining the site and doing more restoration,” Anton said. “We’re mostly going to be maintaining what was already planted and doing some supplemental plantings. We’re hoping in the next five to 10 years we’ll be out of here, and this site will look more like the areas upstream.”

Some of the plants didn’t survive the transplanting process, however. A few small leafless cottonwoods were obviously dead, and bare earth still dominates some areas. Blame that partly on this year’s hot, dry summer.

The heat domes and drought that dominated the Missoula Valley were not the best for little plants trying to survive their first summer. Gicklhorn and Anton were also hoping to see how well the side channels worked during the spring runoff, because the site was designed to flood. But not much water came down Rattlesnake Creek this spring.

It’s not just plants that are moving in. A few members of the tour had to do some side-stepping to avoid two garter snakes that zipped among the leaves. Gicklhorn said researchers with the University of Montana are conducting surveys to see how quickly various animals return to the area.

“We’re already seeing some amphibians and bird species,” Gicklhorn said. “It will be really interesting in 20 years to see how quickly it came back.”

As the group moved carefully down to the main channel among the pink-topped fireweed and gumweed plants with their bright yellow flowers, Gicklhorn showed how the 10,000 willow plantings are already leafed out along the stream bank. Eventually, they should spread to form a thick brushy riparian area.

The east side of the creek is supposed to end up as a boggy wetland area that planners hope won’t be an attractive place for people to recreate. The main trail and interpretive signs will be on the west side of the stream near a chuck of concrete where the dam used to be.

“Ten years from now, this side is going to look very different from what it does right now. The goal is that this will be less inviting,” Gicklhorn said. “This is basically going to be a wetland jungle, so that people will stay on that side of the creek.”

Fassnacht and the stream monitoring teams of Watershed Education Network conduct almost weekly surveys of the stream, sampling aquatic insects and measuring woody debris and water quality to see if it improves downstream now that the dam is gone.

As a result, they’ve also seen people going off trail and doing other things that could have a negative effect on the restoration area. So Fassnacht is trying to raise the alarm.

She wants to have a community dialogue about the best ways to educate people about caring for the creek and the watershed. City employees have told her that citizens suffer from sign fatigue so signs asking people to stay on the trails and pick up after their dogs may not be effective. So she is hoping for some creative ideas.

“How can we, as people who love the place and recreate here, reduce our impact?” Fassnacht said. “We’re thinking of ways – as a group that is paying attention to this creek – that we can work with Missoula Parks and Rec, the Lolo Ranger District and our neighbors to learn how we could bring this to more attention. We need a cultural shift. We need people who recreate here to be aware that if we aren’t careful, it’s not going to stay this way. And a lot of this work may be something we have to redo.”

The Watershed Education Network is planning one more tour of the site in September. For more information, go to MontanaWatershed.org.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.