| U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE
| Mountain-Prairie Region Partners
for Fish & Wildlife
|COLORADO KANSAS MONTANA NEBRASKA
NORTH DAKOTA SOUTH
DAKOTA UTAH WYOMING
|Blackfoot River Watershed
Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited
A Watershed Initiative to Restore Native Fish
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.
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.
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
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
|Bull Trout (Salvilinus confluentus)
|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)
|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)
|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)
|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.
Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)
|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.
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.
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 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 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.
more information on the Blackfoot Project Contact:
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Partners For Fish & Wildlife
922 Bootlegger Trail
Great Falls, MT 59404
(406) 727-7400 x 27
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
302 Spurgin Road
Missoula, MT 59807
on the BLACKFOOT RIVER PROJECT
Peters, D. and R. Spoon 1989.
Preliminary fisheries inventory of the Big Blackfoot River. Montana Fish, Wildlife &
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