Guest post written by David Brooks, Executive Director of Montana Trout Unlimited Unlimited
We all like to help improve our own backyards or our own neighborhoods. When I accepted a job with Montana Trout Unlimited a few years ago, one of the reasons I was most excited to do so was because the organization was going to start working on a project to remove the deadbeat Rattlesnake Creek dam near my home in Missoula, MT.
It’s a rare day that I fail to walk, jog, pedal, or wade along or in the Rattlesnake Creek just below the now-obsolete dam in this stream, which flows from designated Wilderness into the heart of downtown Missoula.
My daughter grew up frolicking in the creek’s cold, clear water on hot summer days and listening to owls hoot from the riverbank cottonwoods while ice cracked and popped in the Rattlesnake on dark winter nights. My affection for this stream, my daily experiences with it, and my excitement about removing the old, unnecessary dam that blocks its flow is pretty common in this area.
Community support for fully freeing the Rattlesnake is high.
With the city’s support, Trout Unlimited is leading this project, which will allow native westslope cutthroat and bull trout to migrate and spawn in the Rattlesnake without impediment. Restoring the floodplain above and below where the concrete dam now sits in the river, will add about fifty percent more open space to the valley. The addition of hiking and biking trails around the project will help accommodate increasing recreational use.
Removing the dam is proving an occasion to engage the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in reminding people about the rich history of how native tribes have long used the area, as well as allows us to tell the history of its development and protection. TU’s work at the site will likely provide an opportunity for university-level field work. Local contractors will be hired to do the rock rolling.
In addition to community enthusiasm, local businesses have stepped up to kick-start the fundraising for this project, estimated to cost $1-1.5M. Stockman Bank was among the first and biggest to do so by contributing $10,000 in November of 2017. That initial gift has been critical to raising awareness about the dam removal and has been matched by other local businesses looking to help with this multi-year effort.
Fishing with Bob Burns
I had the chance to fish the Blackfoot River with Stockman Bank’s Missoula market president Bob Burns last summer. Having met Bob at various ceremonies for the donations Stockman made to the Rattlesnake, followed by a $7,500 contribution to TU work in the Blackfoot and another $4,500 for the Bitterroot River, I knew he cared deeply about forwarding the bank’s efforts to build healthy communities, including their natural environments and the recreation healthy rivers provide. Seeing Bob fish made it clear that his commitment to angling and the outdoors is very personal, too.
Like taking out a dam, investing in the Blackfoot and Bitterroot helps us help wild and native trout. TU’s new Bitterroot project manager, Christine Brissette, is overseeing work to reconnect and restore one of the most important native trout tributaries in that drainage. Her work will reopen spawning habitat and a source of cold, clean water for federally-listed, endangered, native bull trout.
And the Bitterroot and Blackfoot are some of the countless watersheds where the key to TU’s success is thanks to partnerships to with local ranchers. Like Stockman Bank, much of our work is with folks who know the land best, because their families have worked it for generations.
The Stockman donation for the Blackfoot River helps finance work on public and private property through win-win-win solutions for landowners, the public, and trout. A multi-year stream restoration on the Nevada Creek tributary to the Blackfoot is reducing erosion of literally thousands of tons of soil from a multi-generation ranch and, hence, reducing sediment in the river.
Our Big Blackfoot River chapter project manager, Ryen Neudecker, has also replaced an irrigation head gate to make water use more efficient and to keep hundreds of native fish from being caught in a ditch and dying every year. Like most TU stream restoration project managers, she is also using early, private or business donations to leverage millions of grant dollars that put local contractors to work. Local school kids have used the site as an outdoor science classroom and volunteer opportunity.
As great as it is seeing improvements in the stream that’s virtually in my backyard and being involved in that work, what’s even better about the work we do is building relationships. By focusing on Montana’s revered trout waters, we often benefit from and enjoy working with agricultural and ranching producers, biologists, recreational river users, agency staff, and community-minded businesses. Once in awhile, I even get to spend a day on the river with someone like Bob Burns.
There’s a corny fish joke that goes something like: Where do fish keep their money? In river banks. Ha ha ha. The truth is, if Montana trout did any banking, they’d be smart to consider doing so with their friends at Stockman.