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Collaborative Conservation in the Big Hole Watershed

This post was written by Big Sky Watershed Corps member Emilie Lahneman as a part of a series reviewing the stops along the 2019 Missouri Headwaters Watershed Tour. Emilie shares more about our stops at the Oregon Creek and French Gulch restoration projects in the Big Hole Watershed. 

A view of the Oregon Creek restoration project. The project was completed just days before the Missouri Headwaters Watershed Tour came through.

With just 2,000 people spread across its 2 million acres, it’s no surprise that the Big Hole River Watershed is nearly as open and wild as it was hundreds of years ago. In between the rugged Anaconda, Beaverhead, and Pioneer mountain ranges lie cattle ranches, flood-irrigated pastures, and countless anglers looking to land a blue-ribbon trout or Arctic grayling. I felt pure bliss while touring through this area on the Missouri Headwaters Watershed Tour. But the Big Hole wouldn’t be this way now if it wasn’t for the community members who came together in a time of crisis for the Big Hole River.

In the 1980s and 1990s, drought wreaked havoc on the Big Hole River and its stakeholders. The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation was considering listing the river as Chronically Dewatered, and Arctic grayling was proposed for emergency listing as an endangered species. The local community was scared and ready to act, as these two designations would have resulted in state and federal regulations on their water resources. Wanting to keep these resources under local control, ranchers, anglers, and conservationists alike came together to discuss a plan of action, ultimately forming the Big Hole Watershed Committee (BHWC) in 1995.  This small community was able to successfully draft a drought plan at the local level, and to this day, the river has not been listed as Chronically Dewatered, and grayling are recovering and have not been listed under the Endangered Species Act. With this level of community cooperation, BHWC has been a poster child for community-driven watershed action. 

Oregon Creek restoration site

BHWC’s legacy of community involvement in resource conservation holds true today. Those of us who attended the Missouri Headwaters Watershed Tour, which included watershed professionals, saw two projects recently completed by BHWC with the help of the community and partner organizations. Both are within the Mt. Haggin Wildlife Management Area and are aimed at restoring placer-mined sites along Oregon Creek and French Gulch. Both of these sites had straight, deeply incised channels with massive placer tailings left behind, disconnecting the streams from their floodplains and creating barriers to fish and wildlife.

With the help of community support and project partners, these sites were both restored to more natural conditions, including meandering channels and dynamic floodplains. The Oregon Creek restoration was completed just days prior to the tour, so we were able to see what it looked like before nature took control. French Gulch was completed two years prior to the tour and looked entirely natural.

Pedro Marques of BHWC explains some of the work done at the French Gulch restoration site.

These projects wouldn’t have been possible without a number of watershed partners, including BHWC; United States Fish and Wildlife Service; the Bureau of Land Management; Montana Department of Environmental Quality; Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Montana Department of Transportation; Morrison-Maierle, Inc.; Montana Chapter American Fisheries Society; Montana Trout Foundation; George Grant Trout Unlimited; Patagonia; Boy Scouts of America; and Montana Conservation Corps. The Montana Department of Transportation installed a specialized box culvert under the highway, free-of-charge, prior to the French Gulch restoration project in good faith that BHWC would complete the project and reroute the stream through the new culvert. This gesture saved both money and effort, and was a great example of how collaborative community efforts make things happen in the Big Hole Watershed.  Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks plans to build on the work BHWC has been doing by planting native Arctic grayling and Westslope cutthroat trout in restored streams in the coming years. Collaboration with FWP, MDT, and the many other groups who contributed to these projects provide yet another example of the awesome power of collaborative conservation.

Visit BHWC’s website to learn more about the Oregon Creek and French Gulch projects or to support future BHWC projects.