17 August 2011

Native Trout Revival: Westslope Cutthroat Trout, Silver Bow Creek, and Superfund

When I have a good day fishing, I recall the wise words of Butte conservationist George F. Grant: we don't catch wild fish because we are so clever--after all, how smart do you have to be to fool a creature with a brain the size of a pea? No, we catch trout because they are there. And usually, in the modern world, they're there because of people who have helped to restore and protect them.

Well, I had a good morning on Silver Bow Creek just a few miles downstream from my home, catching wild, native Westslope Cutthroat Trout--many (like this one) fat & well over a foot long:

If you imagined a perfect small trout stream (average flow c. 20 cfs), it would look a lot like this Durant Canyon reach of the creek:

And even better, there were riseforms of large trout slurping caddis flies and spruce moths:

For more than a century, there were no trout. Just a few years ago, Silver Bow Creek (at the headwaters of the Clark Fork River in southwest Montana) was still a lifeless, industrial sewer (NRDP photo):

Superfund changed that, and it's a great success story. The success came in two parts--remedy (i.e. clean-up) and restoration. On the remedy side, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandated that the party responsible for a century of mining and smelting pollution -- Arco-British Petroleum -- clean up its mess. On the restoration side, the State of Montana settled for several hundred million dollars in a natural resource damage lawsuit against Arco-BP.

In a unique approach that integrated remedy and restoration, the state took the lead in an $80 million project that included additional funds for enhancements such as restoration work in German Gulch Creek--a major tributary of Silver Bow Creek.

When Montana's Natural Resource Damage Program began developing a restoration vision for Silver Bow Creek, the program was very hesitant to us native trout as a restoration goal. Many thought the creek could never sustain native cutthroats, and even optimists like me thought it would take decades. It was a hard struggle, but thanks to the support of many good people and organizations (see list below), it came together and in a series of meetings in 1997 both the NRDP and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks agreed to embrace the goal of native fish. A big thank you from your most important client:

Folks who deserve special credit, in no particular order:

George F. Grant (1906-2008). George established Montana's first chapter of Trout Unlimited in 1972. He began campaigning to halt mine waste pollution of the Clark Fork River by the mid-1970s.

Board members of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited. They attended a lot of meetings and wrote a lot of letters in support of Silver Bow Creek restoration, and also directed a $1 million restoration project on German Gulch.

Montana Trout Unlimited, particularly its Executive Director, Bruce Farling.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologists Wayne Hadley (retired) and Ron Spoon.  After those 1997 meetings, Ron began collecting data on westslope cutthroat trout in German Gulch and was especially influential in convincing the NRDP that native fish restoration in Silver Bow Creek was a reasonable goal. Jason Lindstrom, along with his excellent field technician (and gifted cabinet maker) Ben Whiteford, are keeping Ron's commitment alive.

Board members of the EPA-funded citizens' group, Citizens Technical Environmental Committee--former officers George Waring, Mary Kay Craig, and John W. Ray were particularly effective leaders.

Montana Department of Environmental Quality project director for Silver Bow Creek, Joel Chavez. Also, the revegetation contractor for the project, Rich Prodgers.

My apologies to those I have inadvertently omitted from this short list of environmental heroes.


Anonymous said...

I love to hear sucess stories like this.
My husband works a lot of superfund jobs for an environmental engineering company. It is neat to have a job that makes a difference.

Janie said...

It's great to hear about a restoration success story. The stream looks beautiful and is obviously nurturing some healthy native trout. Nice catch!

Wolfy said...

Great success story - thanks for sharing it! Those healthy cuts are obviously thriving in their newly cleaned environment.

Pete said...

Truly a hopeful story, Pat. Thanks for sharing!

Arija said...

It just goes to show that if people work together, worthwhile projects can succeed.
I had never thought the Thames or the Rhine could recover with strict regulation but obviously it is possible although as far as I know, the fish nearer the mouth of the Rhine still have severe abnormalities.

troutbirder said...

Wonderful story. I remember seeing this stream many time from the freeway on our way to someplace else. Ugly......