Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Private landowners north of Gold Creek have received a $300,000 grant from the Forest Service to restore native habitat in the foothills of the southern Garnet Mountains by reducing conifer encroachment and restoring streams.

On Tuesday, the Forest Service announced that three Montana projects had been chosen to receive Landscape Scale Restoration program grants, which are provided to restore forests on state, tribal and private lands.

"The Landscape Scale Restoration program is an important way we work with communities across all lands," said Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Forest Service Deputy Chief for State, Private and Tribal Forestry.

One of those projects, the Garnet Watershed Wildlife Habitat Restoration project, received $300,000 which, combined with a $576,000 match, will fund a three-year project in the private lands along Gough, Carten and Brock creeks, which feed into the Clark Fork River near Gold Creek.

The state of Montana has prioritized the need for wildlife habitat restoration in the Garnet Mountains. The project area contains key habitat for the largest concentration of mule deer that winter in the upper Clark Fork, while area streams provide critical habitat for genetically-pure westslope cutthroat trout. However, the loss of aspen stands, riparian areas and historic grasslands pose a big threat to wildlife habitat.

According to the application, fire suppression and grazing has allowed conifer forest to encroach into lower elevation habitat characterized by aspen stands, bitterbrush, and sagebrush grasslands. To correct this, the project would remove the conifers and perhaps conduct burning across 572 acres to encourage aspen regeneration.

In addition, a lack of water tanks and riparian fencing has caused cattle and some game animals to severely trample riparian areas and cloud the waters of the three streams. So the project would install off-stream watering areas and riparian fencing, and conduct streambank enhancement work along 5 miles of stream.

Also, technicians will conduct 100 biological weed control releases of beetles to target spotted knapweed.

Neighboring lands have already had restoration projects that conducted similar work.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources Conservation applied for the grant on behalf of the Watershed Restoration Coalition of the Upper Clark Fork. Additional partners include the Montana Natural Resources Damage Program and the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The Watershed Restoration Coalition of the Upper Clark Fork is a nonprofit watershed organization established in 1999 composed of Powell County landowners and representatives of organizations such as the Clark Fork Coalition and state agencies. Since 2013, WRC has carried out terrestrial and aquatic restoration projects throughout the upper Clark Fork basin under contract to the Natural Resources Damage Program.

The Department of Natural Resources Conservation is chipping in $300,000 for the match. The Natural Resources Damage Program is providing $273,350 of the match while federal Environmental Quality Incentive Program funds are providing $56,000 through a contract with one of the project-area landowners.

All of the participating landowners must provide public access so the public can benefit from the work. So they have to submit an approved access plan to the Natural Resources Damage Program. Most of the landowners participate in the state Block Management hunting-access program, which qualifies as public access.

The two other Montana projects that received grants include the Lone Lake Landscape Scale Fuels Reduction project, which received almost $62,000, and the Beartooth Front Forestry Initiative, which received $300,000.