The Woody Debris Management Task Force, assembled by the Bitterroot Conservation District in collaboration with Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, was primed and ready to conduct its first official early spring float to inspect for potentially hazardous woody debris in the upper part of the river when they got word about a major “strainer” log spanning the river just below Rombo Campground. The Task Force leader, Bitterroot Conservation District board member Kent Myers, said news of the strainer led to a change of plans. They decided to visit the site and see if they could assess it and make some response.
The Task Force was formed last January to specifically address the issue of unauthorized cutting of woody debris in the river in the West Fork. Myers said that issue of unauthorized cutting of woody debris has been a problem for a long time.
“You just have to float it and you can see,” he said. “You see cut trees all along the way, some recent and some very old.” He said the narrowness of the upper West Fork makes it especially prone to log jams. It is easy for a tree to fall across the whole river.
Besides members of the BCD and FWP, the task force includes other “stakeholders” such as the Forest Service, Ravalli County Floodplain Administrator, guides and outfitters, non-profit organizations and private citizens. A plan was put together that included two basic elements. One, to make early season assessments with floats on that stretch to identify any woody debris issues or potential obstructions. Secondly, to come up with a way of mitigating the hazards.
“This was new ground,” said Myers. “Clearly there were things we could do. There are devices such as a grip hoist, a powerful come-along that is used in some states to move hazardous logs; or maybe a minimal amount of cutting, the minimal to let boaters get around.
“Primary, though,” said Myers, “is not to create any harm to the river itself. That’s why it’s important to have people with hydrology backgrounds and fisheries backgrounds as part of this team.” He said BCD was trying to be proactive but hadn’t really taken any steps until the task force was created.
He said when the District got the request for a 310 Permit to remove the log on the West Fork on Friday, he was excited about the task force having a chance to show how it could respond. If they went to the site on Monday and made an assessment and devised a plan they could get approval for a permit from the Conservation District board on Tuesday and go implement the plan on Wednesday.
Myers said he didn’t think they would be able to go on Monday because the river was so high and dangerous but by Monday it had gone down a bit and they decided to try it. Local fishing outfitters Eddie Olwell and Jenny West each took a boat and each carried a couple of companions. A couple of other boats were utilized, one carrying FWP biologist Jason Lindstrom and FWP Fisheries manager Pat Saffel, the other carrying the Ravalli County Flood Plain Administrator and Trout Unlimited Project Director Christine Bissel. The rest of the group walked to the site.
Myers said when they approached the site on the right bank side of the river they saw that the log had apparently come loose and settled against the river’s left bank across the way.
“We felt it was fortuitous and had a good meeting,” he said. “We agreed that in a case like this the log could be manipulated in an appropriate way without causing any ill effects to the river itself.” But then, he said, the people in boats went across the river to examine the log more closely and found that it had been partially sawn off.
“We were fast,” said Myers, “but we were not fast enough. Somebody had already been in and done some cutting.”
FWP fisheries biologist Jason Lindstrom echoed Myers’ assessment and his disappointment. He called the task force’s response “fairly rapid” but said when they got there “somebody had already monkeyed with it.”
“It was one of those situations, we were being as proactive as possible but it wasn’t enough,” said Lindstrom. “It’s hard to gauge whether we have folks out there who are still not interested in following the 310 Law or if they are just still unaware of it.” He said that’s one reason they are trying hard to get the message out there. He said in his opinion the message is getting to the outfitters, but he’s not sure about the general public. “You just don’t know if it’s malicious or if someone is just uninformed. But it’s still frustrating either way.”
Lindstrom said that in his opinion if they had been presented with a 310 Permit to do this action as it was done, he would have recommended permitting it. He said the log was largely left intact with just the tip end cut into a bit. It broke off with the water pressure and just swung around. “And it wasn’t cut out of a place where we would have wanted that log to stay. “
Both Lindstrom and Myers are quick to note that not every log jam should be removed or every obstructing log cut out. Logs and log jams create excellent fish habitat especially for some of our most threatened species like Bull trout.
Lindstrom said that from that standpoint what happened was not that detrimental to the habitat, “but it is still frustrating that the process wasn’t allowed to run its course.”
Lindstrom did say that they floated a good portion of the upper river that day from above the Nez Perce to Applebury they did not see too many potential hazards. He said they found a few places they will keep their eyes on as the river levels drop, “but for the most part we didn’t find too many issues on the woody debris front up there.”
Both Lindstrom and Myers noted, however, that one windy day can change everything on the river, especially up the West Fork.
“We really don’t want anybody to think that because we are out there looking and because we didn’t find much to be worried about in our assessment that floating that stretch of the river will be safe,” said Myers.
“The river is dangerous and the dangers change daily.” He said no matter who has been before you, a person needs to rely on their own abilities and be prepared to deal with unexpected hazards.