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Blackfoot River Watershed

Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited
A Watershed Initiative to Restore Native Fish Populations

Recreationists on the Blackfoot River

The Blackfoot River, located in west-central Montana, flows 132 miles westerly from its source near the Continental Divide to its confluence with the Clark Fork River at Bonner, Montana.  The Blackfoot drains 2,400 square miles and includes a 3,700 mile stream network of which 1,900 miles are perennial streams capable of supporting fisheries. 

Landownership in the Blackfoot Valley is 44% National Forest, 5% Bureau of Land Management, 7% State of Montana, 20% Plum Creek Timber Company and 24% private ownership.  The private ownership is comprised mostly of large intact cattle ranches.

Trout Unlimited logo
Big Blackfoot Chapter
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks logo

How It Got Started

In 1988, private landowners, recreationists, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologists and others concerned about the future of the Blackfoot River teamed up to form the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited (chapter).  The mission of the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited is to restore and preserve the cold water fishery of the Blackfoot River and its tributaries.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program - developed a Cooperative Agreement with the Chapter to work on restoration of the Blackfoot's fishery.

Bull trout photoThe first project the Chapter undertook was a two year inventory and status report of fisheries in the Blackfoot River watershed (completed in 1989).  This effort focused on surveying mainstem trout populations, sampling juvenile trout populations in tributaries, and establishing monitoring sites in 19 tributaries.

From 1990 to 2001, additional fishery inventories have been completed in 69 tributaries to the Blackfoot River. Data collected in the 88 tributary streams included:  species composition, population densities, species distribution throughout the stream, base flows, temperature, sediment levels, aquatic habitat conditions, riparian condition, stream connectivity (culverts, irrigation diversions, etc.), dewatered stream sections (both artificial and natural), and overall watershed condition. These assessments identified significant degradation in 83 of the 88 tributaries.

Fish of the Blackfoot River

Three life-history forms of native trout exist in the Blackfoot River drainage; fluvial (river-dwelling), adfluvial (lake dwelling), and resident (tributary dwelling).  Radio telemetry studies on bull and westslope cutthroat trout indicate that fluvial fish spawn and rear in tributary streams, however, they spend much of their adult life in the mainstem of the Blackfoot River.  Migrations of over 60 miles from the Blackfoot River to headwater tributaries during high flows for spawning is common.  Because of the complexity of this migratory life-history form, and the fact that these native fluvial fish evolved with droughts, floods, anchor ice, intermittent stream reaches, and beaver dams we believe they are the best indicators for the over-all health of the Blackfoot River system. Species composition, abundance and distribution of trout in the Blackfoot River and its tributaries vary greatly.  This can be explained by life-history forms, natural geological/environmental conditions, human influences (such as environmental degradation and fishery exploitation), hybridization, and interspecific competition.  Distribution of the five main trout and char species in the drainage are briefly discussed below.

Bull Trout (Salvilinus confluentus)
Threatened Species

Bull trout distribution map
Fluvial bull trout occur from the mainstem Blackfoot River to extreme headwaters of larger tributaries. The present distribution of fluvial bull trout is mostly tied to larger tributaries draining mountains north of the Blackfoot River, although several smaller streams south of the Blackfoot historically supported bull trout.   Fluvial bull trout currently inhabit 420 miles of water or 22% of the perennial streams.
Westslope Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi)
Candidate Species

westslope cutthroat trout distribution map
Cutthroat trout are distributed throughout the drainage, inhabiting the mainstem and 48 of the 52 tributaries studied.  The four streams where cutthroat trout were absent were spring creek environments dominated by brown trout.   In general, densities in tributaries decline in the downstream direction because of habitat degradation, historic fishery exploitation, hybridization and possibly from competition with non-native trout.
Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)
Exotic Species

rainbow trout  distribution map
The distribution of rainbow trout in the Blackfoot River drainage is limited to the lower river and lower reaches of tributaries to the lower river.  Populations of rainbow trout in tributaries are generally comprised of juveniles, with highest densities in lower reaches.  A significant number of young-of-the-year(YOY) rainbow emigrate from spawning areas to the Blackfoot River during late summer.  Densities of rainbow trout generally decline in the upriver direction, with the upper limit of the species in the area of Nevada Creek.  This distribution is not explained by physical passage barriers. Rainbow trout inhabit 160 miles, or approx. 8% of the perennial water.
Brown Trout (Salmo trutta)
Exotic Species

brown trout distribution map
Brown trout are more widely distributed in the drainage than rainbow trout, extending from the lower river to the upper Lincoln Valley.  This fish inhabits stream reaches in the foothills and agricultural bottomlands of the Blackfoot Valley.  Brown trout inhabit approx. 280 miles of stream or 15% of the total perennial network, including 110 miles of the Blackfoot River mainstem and the lower reaches of most tributaries.  Spawning occurs in the mainstem and lower tributary reaches.  Brown trout are generally considered more tolerant of elevated levels of sediment and temperatures than other species.
Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)
Exotic Species

brook trout distribution map
Brook trout are widely distributed throughout the Blackfoot River drainage, having been recorded in 38 of the 52 tributaries sampled since 1989.   However, brook trout are rarely found in the mainstem of the Blackfoot River, and are apparently doing poorly in this environment.  Brook trout are often successful in impaired tributary streams due to high reproductive rates, sediment tolerance, and ability to spawn in still waters.
 

Solutions

Based on the data collected in the initial two year study, the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited and its partners developed a two-pronged strategy for dealing with the declining fishery: 1) protecting vulnerable native trout from harvest with catch-and-release fishing regulations throughout the drainage (accomplished in 1990) and 2) working with private landowners to restore habitat in the Blackfoot's degraded tributary streams.

Native fish reproduction and recruitment was limited by numerous factors including: loss of stream connectivity by fish passage barriers (irrigation diversion and undersized culverts); dewatering of streams for irrigation and livestock water; fish entrainment in irrigation ditches; loss of complex fish habitat by removal of large woody debris; chemical removal of woody riparian vegetation; channelizing/straightening of streams; and improper livestock management.  These problems combine to cause increased sedimentation, excess nutrient loading and elevated temperatures.

In 1990, tributary streams were prioritized for restoration based on their importance to native salmonids and potential contributions to the mainstem of the Blackfoot River.  On-the-ground restoration projects began in 1990 focusing on correcting obvious fishery impacts.  The attached projects highlight the five main tools used for restoration, they include: instream habitat restoration, improving instream flows, addressing fish passage problems, irrigation ditch screening, and riparian grazing management.  All projects were accomplished through "cooperative solutions" between private landowners and the restoration team composed of biologists, hydrologists, and range conservationists.

Accomplishments

Restoration projects have occurred on 37 tributary streams influencing over 350 stream miles. In addition, over 2,500 wetland/riparian acres have been restored; grazing systems have been implemented on over 45,000 acres; 14 fish screens have been installed on irrigation ditches; and over 70,000 acres of critical fish and wildlife habitat have been perpetually protected through conservation easements. This on-going effort is in its 14th year and has raised over 5 million dollars for on-the-ground projects.

For more specific information on individual stream restoration projects, visit Blackfoot Watershed Project Map and Streams by Activity website.


Monitoring/Fishery Response

Monitoring projects and continued long-term monitoring of established monitoring sites is critical for evaluating the success of restoration projects.  Monitoring is accomplished in several ways including: redd surveys, young-of-the-year tributary surveys, surveys before and after restoration projects, and population estimates in the mainstem of the Blackfoot River.  To date, the bulk of the restoration projects have occurred in tributary streams and the response by native fish is encouraging.  Bull trout redd surveys in Monture Creek and the North Fork of the Blackfoot have increased from a combined 18 redds in 1989 to 170 redds in 2001.  Westslope cutthroat trout populations have increased ten fold in portions of some restored tributary streams.

However, the real test and goal of this effort is not only the response in the tributaries, but the response of native fish in the Blackfoot River as a result of the tributary work.  Both bull & westslope cutthroat trout population trends are increasing in the mainstem, however, it will require many years before full recovery is accomplished.


Partnerships

Partnerships have been the key to the success of the Blackfoot Project.  Partnerships take many forms including technical expertise, financial assistance, materials, inkind labor, and most importantly moral support.  Key partners include: Private Landowners, Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Blackfoot Challenge, North Powell Conservation District, Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Chutney Foundation, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Plum Creek Timber Company, Environmental Protection Agency, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Montana Land Reliance, The Nature Conservancy, Montana Power Company, Sundance Foundation, Orvis Company, and many others.

For more information on the Blackfoot Project Contact:
Greg Neudecker

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Partners For Fish & Wildlife
922 Bootlegger Trail
Great Falls, MT 59404
(406) 727-7400 x 27
greg_neudecker@fws.gov

Ron Pierce

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Fisheries Division
302 Spurgin Road
Missoula, MT 59807
(406) 542-5532
bfrfish@aol.com

 

ADDITIONAL LITERATURE AVAILABLE
on the BLACKFOOT RIVER PROJECT

Peters, D. and R. Spoon 1989. Preliminary fisheries inventory of the Big Blackfoot River. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MTFWP)

Peters, D. 1990 Inventory of Fishery resources in the Blackfoot River and major tributaries. MTFWP

Pierce, R. 1991. A stream habitat and fisheries analysis for six tributaries for the Blackfoot River. MTFWP

Peters, D. and R. Pierce 1995. Aquatic Restoration in the Blackfoot River and Rock Creek Drainages. MTFWP

Pierce, R., D. Peter and T. Swanberg 1997. Blackfoot River Restoration Project Progress Report. MTFWP

Pierce, R. and D. Schmetterling 1999. Blackfoot River Restoration Project: Progress and Monitoring Report 1997-1999. MTFWP

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