As we flow into a new year, we contemplate how our water sources can be protected amidst the predictable changes in our climate and increase of development in the Missoula Valley. These conditions and circumstances prompt us to explore the question of what does watershed sustainability look like?

Western Montana’s Watershed Education Network (WEN) has been engaging people in learning about and caring for their rivers and creeks since its founding in 1996. WEN’s staff and dedicated volunteers actively engage in their mission, “to foster knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of watershed health through citizen science, youth and school engagement, and outreach to our communities in order to ensure future stewardship of our rivers and creeks.”

The USGS classifies a watershed as “an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall to a common outlet such as the outflow of a reservoir, mouth of a bay or any point along a stream channel.” All the water that we encounter is part of our local watershed, which is affected by all the activities that take place within it. The hills and mountains around us create the boundaries between watersheds, like the mountains in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area separate the Rattlesnake Creek drainage from Stewart Peak and Marshall Mountain.

Rattlesnake Creek is an important tributary to the Clark Fork River, and an essential trout spawning stream. As the snowmelt that feeds Rattlesnake Creek flows into the Clark Fork River it heads west to become part of a vast river system. The Clark Fork runs through Idaho and flows right into Lake Pend Oreille.

From there it feeds into the massive 1,243 mile-long Columbia River, and our Mother Watershed- the Columbia River Watershed. It is truly remarkable that the water from our creeks and the Clark Fork River flows into the Columbia River and on out into the Pacific Ocean. It is our Montana creeks and rivers which provide clean, abundant water for fisheries and aquatic life along the way.

Missoula is home to a synergy of urban, agricultural and wilderness areas. With this remarkable setting comes a vibrant community, development interests, local agriculture, and nearby recreation on public lands. Growing development also poses potential pressure on our natural surroundings such as; abundant wildlife, water systems, open spaces, and water access points.

The boundaries of the Rattlesnake Watershed outlined in yellow. (Map by Brook Bauer)
The boundaries of the Rattlesnake Watershed outlined in yellow. (Map by Brook Bauer)

WEN staff and volunteers have created robust programs that have established baseline data to monitor stream health through years of water monitoring and data collection. There are lots of watershed stewardship opportunities on the Rattlesnake Creek and citizen science projects to further observe and understand what change over- time looks like within this ecosystem.

The heart of WEN’s work is welcoming everyone to learn more about their watersheds. Students and community members are provided with ways to get involved in water monitoring and learn about river ecology and groundwater concepts which inspire sustainable practices. One of our community watershed activities is the Rattlesnake Creek Stream Team, which has been a focus of WEN’s citizen science over the past four years. Learn more about Stream Team and other projects on our website: WEN’s water monitoring opportunities.

To learn more about the Rattlesnake Creek dam removal and restoration project in partnership with Trout Unlimited and City of Missoula Parks and Recreation view the City of Missoula’s website.

Some other WEN projects: Various WEN school programs, watershed tours, our Winter 2022 Speaker Series, Big Sky RISE Challenge (in partnership with Brightways Learning), and winter Rattlesnake Creek Monitoring.

By engaging in WEN’s many watershed activities our community members and students develop a new lens to discover more about our creeks and rivers. One such opportunity was identified when our Stream Team members sighted a new beaver dam on Rattlesnake Creek in September 2021. This sparked the creation of a citizen science winter beaver photo monitoring project to see what changes may take place through the year, and to keep conversations and learning experiences flowing throughout the winter.

Returning to the question of what a sustainable watershed looks like, we at WEN view watershed sustainability in a multitude of ways. First, a healthy watershed has water that is clean, cold, clear, connected, and complex (5 C’s of a healthy water body). It is a system that plays a crucial role in quality of life: ecological, societal, economical, and human health. Our watershed provides so many remarkable gifts, and most occur unrecognized.

As you’re walking by the creek your watershed is hard at work according to the EPA, “[...] nutrient cycling, carbon storage, erosion/sedimentation control, increased biodiversity, soil formation, wildlife movement corridors, water storage, water filtration, flood control, food, timber and recreation, as well as reduced vulnerability to invasive species, the effects of climate change and other natural disasters (2).”

In our years of work WEN recognizes that watersheds are critical systems that need to be protected and cared for, sustaining healthy watersheds over the long haul is attainable as long as we accept responsibility as stewards for our rivers and creeks and take care of our watersheds.

Unfortunately, we are already seeing changes to our watershed. One of the observed impacts throughout 2021 along the Rattlesnake Creek is from recreation activities. Forms of recreation include hiking, biking, dog-walking, skiing, backpacking, camping, hunting and running.

The challenge is to encourage everyone to be mindful of how their recreation impacts the surrounding riparian area (land close to the water) and the entire ecosystem. This heightened awareness of recreation impact is especially important with the newly restored Rattlesnake Creek. We can all avoid adverse impacts to our creek such as erosion causing excessive sediment deposits, pet waste emitting fecal bacteria, and invasive species being introduced to our water systems by recreating responsibly.

This includes staying on the already established trail, leaving no trace, leashing and picking up after your dog, and cleaning your watercraft equipment after going from one waterbody to another.

As a community we can all make sure that our watersheds remain intact and healthy well into the future. By working together, we can learn what our watersheds need and make sure we are all taking care of the land we live and play on to keep our water resources healthy for years to come. As we begin a new year, let’s set the intention of being watershed stewards and encourage our family and friends to do what we can to minimize our impacts.

“We must strive to touch the land gently and care for it as true stewards, that those who follow us and assess our record may see that our mark on the land was one of love and respect…” - Robert B. Oetting, 1974

To get involved with WEN, and become more acquainted with your watershed, please visit our website at You can additionally find the Watershed Education Network on Facebook and Instagram.

Sustainability Happenings

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

Missoula’s WINTER Farmers Market continues in Southgate Mall, Saturdays 9am to 2pm. Until April 23. Also on Wednesdays 4:30- 7pm until Dec 22.

January 8. Fixit Clinic Missoula 11am to 3pm - Don’t toss it, fix it! Bring your broken appliances, ripped clothing or wobbly chairs to the Home ReSource Fixit Clinic and learn some new repair skills. Register here

January 10. Planting Native Plants to attract Native Birds. Joint meeting of MT Native Plant Society and Montana Audubon. 7pm in UM’s Interdisciplinary Science building (room 110). Public welcome. Masks required in UM buildings. This talk will also be Zoomed at this link. 

January 11. 7:00 pm Public Forum on Missoula’s Commitment to a Just, Equitable, Diverse and Inclusive Community “JEDI Resolutions: Not the Star Wars You May Think” hosted by League of Women Voters of Missoula. Register in advance for this webinar.

January 12. Faith & Climate Action meets at 12:30 pm at Emmaus House near the UM campus. For more info, email 

February 12. Running Up for Air – Mt Sentinel. Runner’s Edge is sponsoring Montana’s participation in this 12, 6, and 3 hour event. And your participation supports Climate Smart’s effort for clean air. Learn more about this series here and sign up with Runner’s Edge 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

Find more local activities and events at 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.