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Sustainable Missoula: Notes from a watershed group on the rise

We could see it so clearly—and indeed, Sunday, September 26, dawned a heart-crackingly gorgeous day. In golden afternoon sun, we board members of the Rattlesnake Creek Watershed Group joined our neighbors at RCWG’s annual fall festival, mingling, meeting, celebrating the season on the beautiful lawns of Ten Spoon Winery.

People took turns cranking the ciderpress, to which they had trundled boxes of apples from their trees to keep from tempting bears during the animals’ desperate hunt for winter calories. Young families enjoyed games, art, and food trucks. Community members from across Missoula learned about the watershed at tables staffed by Trout Unlimited, Great Bear Foundation, Watershed Education Network, and other groups doing fine work in the Rattlesnake.

All these folks exchanged ideas about water, wildlife, and weeds—the festival’s theme—and about stewardship opportunities for a place they love for whatever reasons—solace, exercise, science, room to breathe and explore, and just for the watershed’s own sake. We watched people’s eyes light up at the sight of our brand-new, bright-blue bumper stickers (“River to Peak, Love the Creek”); they grabbed five for family and friends.

None of that really happened. Why not?

The Rattlesnake Creek Watershed Group has a mission to protect, preserve, and restore the Rattlesnake Creek Watershed through community outreach, education, science and stewardship. RCWG is building interest and community in caring for the watershed. Founded in 2008 but waking from a period of dormancy, the group is excited to instigate weed pulls and stream cleanups, Bear Aware campaigns and collaborations to support the many organizations doing important work in the ‘Snake.

Of course, at their heart watershed groups are about waterways—the circulatory system of the planet, as indigenous people and others have always understood it. A watershed is a classic and natural unit in organizing landscape: the bounded area, be it tiny or vast, within which all water flows eventually into one stream. But the rest of that watershed—its geology, flora, fauna, and yes, its humans too—are equal factors, integrally related to the water.

One example in the Rattlesnake is bears. To bears, the creek and its tributaries are roads offering food, drink, directness, and cover as they go about their business. In the Rattlesnake, humans have actually shaped bear behavior and populations by, long ago and continually, planting apple trees that thrive in the valley’s microclimate, drawing large numbers of bears each fall.

Struggling for balance in a watershed, promoting the health of what lives within its bounds, whether, in the Rattlesnake, it’s glacier lilies and whitebark pine, mountain goats and pikas, smoky taildroppers and Pacific wrens, or the people who frequent it—that’s a watershed group’s concern. From river to peak. So, in the midst of surging Covid cases in Missoula, we decided not to contribute to health risks for vulnerable people in our watershed or the wider valley, to the further disruption in children’s education or strain on our precious health care workers.

That’s why we canceled the festival.

Times seem perilous. If it’s not a pandemic, it’s a warming planet. In our own approximately 95-square-mile watershed, species are changing patterns. “It’s black bears now, but one day it’ll be a grizzly walking down Van Buren Street,” Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks “bear guy” Jamie Jonkel has always said, and finally, grizzlies are closer than they’ve ever been, with evidence of them passing along well-used trails just north of town.

With warmer winters, some bears are choosing not to hibernate at all. Drought conditions will dry wild fruit sooner, putting bears in neighborhoods earlier and for longer, getting into trouble around homes, coming back when they hit jackpots, and courting euthanasia. Regarding other megafauna in the watershed, where there are moose, there are moose ticks, tiny vampires that attach themselves to their hosts in such numbers these days, thanks to mild winters, that they bring the big animals to a standstill, literally sucking them dry. On perhaps a happier note, new species are appearing in the watershed, such as Lesser Goldfinches from further east, the first known nest of which in Montana was sighted this summer in Greenough Park.

Local efforts are vital in dealing with climate change and its impacts, and you can’t get more local than a watershed. We have to take care of each other. We have to take care of the creatures around us, and the land and water that sustain us. That’s why we can’t wait to see you at our next fall festival, on another heart-cracking golden autumn day. We’ll sip fresh-pressed cider, compare notes on the state of the world and what animals and plants we’ve come across lately, and figure out opportunities to create and seize—ways to give back to a watershed that gives us so much.

See you next year!

For more info about caring for the Rattlesnake Creek watershed (or to see our great new bumper stickers), check out www.rattlesnakecreekwatershedgroup.org. Beth Judy, Nancy Siegel, Paul Hendricks, Sally Thompson, Chris Brick, and Nancy Heil are Rattlesnake Creek Watershed Group board members.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for the Home ReSource eNews via their homepage here.

October 14. Climate Parent Social, and Action Meetup. Imagine Nation Brewing, 5 -6:30 PM. Mask up and join other parents and caregivers who take action on climate change at Imagine Nation Brewing. Hear about upcoming actions and connect in community. Please RSVP so we can keep our numbers safe for social distancing.

Oct 19-20 —Montana Small Farms Conference. Missoula. Info on small farm management, specialty crops, niche markets. Tours of local farms. Info/register. 

October 22. BBB—A Night for Western Native Voice. Freecycles, 6:00-9:00 PM.

Co-hosted by the Environmental Law Group (ELG) and Native American Law Student Association (NALSA), the annual Bulls, Brews and Blues (BBB) Silent Auction and Fundraiser will raise money for Western Native Voice. $15 Tickets include your choice of tacos from Edgar Cisneros’ Taco Guy food truck at Free Cycles, and options will include carnitas, chicken and nopales (cactus).


October 28. Climate Conversation with Al Gore and Max Baucus. Via Zoom, 7- 8pm. Hosted by the Max Baucus Institute at the U of Montana’s Blewett School of Law: A Climate Conversation featuring former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and former U.S. Senator and Ambassador Max Baucus. Register for this Zoom event here.


October 31. Solar Dedication Service at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Bonner. 
11am. The public is welcome to join a special service dedicating the new solar array which will cover 100% of the church’s annual electricity usage. Tours and informational discussion will follow the dedication ceremony. Outside ceremony for COVID-19 safety. Contact Eric Huseth for more information.

Trees for Missoula has many fall volunteer Tree Planting opportunities this fall.

Missoula’s Farmers Markets. Eat local now through the end of October! The original Farmers Market at the north end of Higgins runs every Saturday 9am-12:30 – information here. The Clark Fork Market is now located at 101 Carousel Drive near Dragon Hollow, runs every Saturday 9am -1pm – information is here.

Materials donations to Home Resource keep the wheels of reuse spinning in our community; and remember that everything you need to know about what to do with your unwanted stuff is at www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.

Find more local activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month breakdown of world day campaigns.