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Coming Together in the Ruby Valley

Les Gilman, Executive Director of the Ruby Habitat Foundation, talks to tour attendees on the Woodson Ranch. 
This post was written by Big Sky Watershed Corps member Liz Shull as a part of a series reviewing the stops along the 2019 Missouri Headwaters Watershed Tour. Liz shares more about our stop at the Woodson Ranch and how groups from across the Ruby Valley come together to get conservation done.

The Ruby River drains a sweeping territory bounded by 5 distinct ranges – the Gravelly, Greenhorn, Snowcrest, Ruby, and Tobacco Root mountains – and covering 623,000 acres. Like many valleys in southwest Montana it supports an array of overlapping human and ecological communities. The area has a long history of changing land uses that make it a microcosm of Montana’s history: hunting and gathering, mining, farming, ranching, recreation, and tourism have all played a role the history of the Ruby. While many things change, others stay the same. Large family ranches, tight-knit communities, and abundant fish and wildlife populations are all mainstays of this vast landscape.  

The strong ties that local communities have to conservation and preservation of the natural land and heritage are evident in the collaborative conservation efforts happening across the valley.  These efforts include local watershed partners such as the Ruby Valley Conservation District (RVCD), the Ruby Watershed Council (RWC), the Ruby Habitat Foundation (RHF), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the Montana Land Reliance (MLR). These groups work with local landowners as well as state and federal agencies to steward the land and water resources of the Ruby Valley. 

While touring the Ruby Valley during the 2019 Missouri Headwaters Watershed Tour, watershed professionals from across the state learned about the many success stories of collaborative conservation on private lands. The first success story of the day was a TNC led project to reconnect the Ruby River to its historic floodplain and enhance riparian area habitat. In the early 20th century, many of the valley’s streams were artificially straightened to facilitate irrigation and ranching. While this resulted in a flush of agricultural productivity, many reaches of the Ruby River and its tributaries became disconnected from their floodplains, and many riparian areas, wetlands, and wildlife corridors were greatly diminished as a result. 

The tour later stopped at Clear Creek on RHF’s Woodson Ranch property. Irrigation water rights were established on Clear Creek as far back as the 1860s, and for many decades the stream was used primarily as an irrigation conveyance. As a result, Clear Creek could often become critically de-watered in the height of irrigation season or on a particularly dry year. In 2012, the local Conservation District requested that the NRCS conduct a Riparian Assessment of the Lower Ruby. The conclusion of the assessment team was that much of Clear Creek is ”Not Sustainable”. In addition to other challenges, localized incisement on Clear Creek is severe enough that the stream is cut off from its floodplain and streambank erosion is extensive. These conditions hinder the recruitment of native riparian shrubs and trees, increase the velocity of floodwaters downstream, and result in heavy siltation of the stream itself. Historically, occasional dewatering of the stream has also occurred during the irrigation season. To remedy this problem, NRCS and RHF have partnered with RVCD, RWC, MLR, private landowners, and water users to maintain adequate flows in the channel of Clear Creek year-round. Moreover, several of these partners have worked with RHF to establish an NRCS Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) on the Woodson Ranch property to enhance and protect the stream corridor and associated wetlands in perpetuity. Starting in winter 2019, RHF and NRCS will begin the restoration of much of Clear Creek on the Woodson Ranch. This will lengthen the stream, reconnect it to its floodplain, repair eroding streambanks, and revitalize the riparian area and adjacent wetlands.  

Through collaboration, vision, and strategic partnerships, the residents of the Ruby Valley continue to move the needle forward in conservation and river restoration to protect the land and preserve their heritage for generations to come.