by Michael Howell
After ranking number one among all candidates, Bitterroot Trout Unlimited was recently awarded a $10,000 grant from Trout Unlimited’s Embrace a Stream Program. The program is considered by many to be one of the most prestigious stream restoration awards in the country. Since its inception in 1975, EAS has provided $4.85 million in direct awards to TU councils and chapters to support over 1,000 projects.
The funds will support a major revegetation project on North Burnt Fork Creek as it flows through Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. The work will include a major construction project to remove a stand pipe that has been an in-stream barrier that has prevented fish from traveling between the Bitterroot River and North Burnt Fork Creek for over 50 years. Together, these efforts will reconnect 2.5 miles of spawning habitat to the Bitterroot River and improve shade, bank stability and cover along a half mile of stream.
Partnering with BRTU on the project are TU National, Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Bitterroot Audubon. The successful application was prepared by TU National’s Project Coordinator Christine Brissette and BRTU Board member Marisa Sowles. Brissette will serve as the project manager.
According to Brissette, discussions on the idea of restoring the mouth of North Burnt Fork Creek actually started about 20 years ago. It has been a long slow process. The idea picked up speed with a $75,000 grant from the National Fish Passage Program and a subsequent grant from the Montana State Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to begin the planning process. Grants have also been obtained from local chapters Bitterroot TU and Westslope TU. The recent grant from the Embrace a Stream Program requires a match and Brissette said that efforts would soon begin to raise the funds to meet that goal.
Brissette said that another great partner in the venture has been Bitterroot Audubon. According to Micki Long of Bitterroot Audubon, the planned restoration work including restoration of riparian areas was of great interest to birders. She said that hundreds of species of migratory songbirds benefit from this type of habitat improvement.
“Lee Metcalf is close to the heart of many of our members,” said Long. “It’s a place that’s very important to us. But it’s also a part of the Important Bird Area established in the Bitterroot and important to try and protect that habitat. We are hoping we can help a lot in the future. We are full of willing volunteers.”
Another partner in the venture is Montana FWP. FWP fisheries biologist Jason Lindstrom said, “We are looking at the Burnt Fork holistically. This will open up the lower part of the stream to non-native fish, but they will still be blocked at the Big Ditch, protecting Cutthroat in the upper part.” He said there is a prolific stronghold of native Cutthroat trout in the upper Burnt Fork, but the Big Ditch remains a significant barrier to non-natives swimming up from the river and could even be enhanced if warranted. But they are also looking at allowing some non-native fish to use the lower section for breeding purposes and return to the river. He called it an attempt to balance some contrary goals in the big picture.