Rebuilt Blackfoot River tributary producing more fish, rare studies

By on February 3, 2015

In the watershed of the Blackfoot River, famous for its appearance in  “A River Runs Through It,” restoration managers found a spring creek in such bad shape that they redrew its course and rebuilt it from streambed to bank. Now the stream isn’t just producing more fish, it’s producing valuable restoration research in a field where good studies are rare.

Kleinschmidt Creek, a small groundwater-fed stream in western Montana, was “completely degraded from top to bottom,” said Ron Pierce, a fisheries biologist with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. It was straightened, ditched and widened significantly over time. Temperatures and sediment increased while the habitat went south.

This wasn’t a situation where fencing off the cows and sprigging in new willows along the banks were going to make any appreciable difference in bringing the stream back to life.

“You could wait until the next ice age to get the habitat features back, given the level of human alteration to the stream system,” Pierce said.

Instead, managers aggressively rebuilt a 1.6-mile stretch of the creek. They added  bends back into the stream’s route, increasing the stream’s length by 67 percent, and designed a deeper, narrower channel. The construction was completed in 2001, but that wasn’t the end of the work. In addition to some monitoring they had done before the restoration, researchers continued tracking water temperatures, habitat features, fish population and more for years.

The data has gone on to support a series of studies published in scientific journals, which will do their part to address gaps in the scientific literature about stream restoration.

“There’s a basic institutional lack of monitoring on restoration projects across the entire continent,” Pierce said. Stream restoration ecology is a quickly growing field and the evaluations haven’t caught up with it.

“If you are going to do something as dramatic as that — put a machine in the channel and rebuild it from top to bottom — I think it’s incumbent to do the studies,” he said.

Photos of the same point on Kleinschmidt Creek from 2001, top, and 2014, bottom, show the new narrower, winding channel. (Courtesy Ron Pierce)

Photos of the same point on Kleinschmidt Creek from 2001, top, and 2014, bottom, show the new narrower, winding channel. (Courtesy Ron Pierce)

One of those studies, published in Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, showed that the average daily high stream temperatures in summer dropped by 3.2 degrees Celsius after the restoration, while the average daily temperature decreased from 11.2 degrees to 10 degrees. The most recent study, published online in January by the same journal, documents recovery of the trout populations after the restoration added wood for habitat and the new channel allowed features like pools, riffles and cut banks to return.

Pierce says that has a few more anglers on the stream.

“Prior to the work, I don’t think anybody was fishing the spring creek,” Pierce said. “But right now, it’s a pretty nice stream to fly fish.”

Besides the better fishing, the  managers have the studies to prove that the restoration project did what they had hoped it would do. The numbers produced by the long-term monitoring help when engaging the public, Pierce said.

“One thing I’ve never liked is random acts of restoration,” he said. “If you don’t have good information, you really can’t tell anybody that you’re doing much good.”

And the agency is doing plenty of good worth talking about. Kleinschmidt Creek is one of about 50 streams his office has worked on as part of a larger restoration effort across the Blackfoot River basin. They have a lot of the high-priority work done, but there’s still a lot to address, from degraded habitat to fish passage barriers.

“When we started that project, we thought it would take about fifty years to restore the basin,” he said. “We’re about halfway through that, and I think we’re about on track.”

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