Saving Montana’s Wetlands Legacy

Beneficial to wildlife and water quality, wetlands are in trouble. How an innovative partnership came to their aid. By Tom Dickson

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
November–December 2002

Cindy Kittredge cares strongly about history, family, and land. So it comes as no surprise to learn that she and her husband, Jim, have spent the past seven years working to restore a historic wetland on her family’s 2,500-acre ranch, located 25 miles southwest of Great Falls. Her father, born and raised nearby, began farming the property in the 1920s. “Dad took good care of this land,” says Cindy Kittredge, who also heads the Cascade County Historical Society. “He didn’t try to control it, to make it do what it couldn’t. When Jim and I moved out to the ranch, we wanted to do the same.”

It wasn’t easy. The ranch had begun to languish in the mid-1980s, after Cindy’s father stopped farming. Leased cattle overgrazed pastures. Leafy spurge and other harmful exotic plants invaded fields, crowding out native grasses. Perhaps most alarming to the Kittredges, who moved there in 1996, was the loss of water in a 119-acre oxbow wetland. There, as a girl, Cindy had watched ducks, shorebirds, sandhill cranes, frogs, muskrats, and other water-loving wildlife. “You wouldn’t believe how beautiful this was back then,” she says. Now the wetland sits dry for most of the year.

At first, the couple worked on their own, using imported sheep to control leafy spurge and rotational grazing to feed cattle without denuding pastures. But restoring so much property to its natural function, while at the same time running a working ranch, took more money and time than the Kittredges alone could muster. So they brought in outsiders—biologists, archeologists, geologists, state officials, and anyone else who also saw the ecological potential of the rich, spring-laced property. One of the many invited to the ranch was Tom Hinz, a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) wildlife biologist. “I could see that their wetland was part of the legacy of wetlands in this part of Montana,” he says. “It seemed well worth restoring.”

Over the next few years, FWP and several conseration groups—among them the American Bird Conservancy, American Public Land Exchange, Ducks Unlimited, and the Montana Conservation Corps—helped the ranching couple fence livestock from the water’s edge and plant young willows and cottonwoods. They also helped the Kittredges apply for a federal North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant. Still pending, the grant would purchase a conservation easement that would forever protect the property from development.

The shining conservation achievement, however, would be restoring the large wetland. To that end, the Kittredges and several conservation groups recently applied for funds to build a water-control structure that would help the couple retain water in the basin. If all goes according to plan, sandhill cranes, shorebirds, and other wildlife will once again be able to use the shallow lake for much of the year.

Central to the Kittredge’s potential wetland restoration—and dozens of others across the state—is the Montana Wetlands Legacy. Begun in 2000 to help stem the loss of Montana’s wet areas, the legacy is a partnership of 30-plus organizations, agencies, and businesses working with hundreds of landowners and other citizens. The partnership’s ambitious goal is to conserve, by 2005, an additional 250,000 acres of Montana wetlands, riparian (streamside) areas, and nearby uplands that would not otherwise be restored or protected.

The legacy is not a typical wetland conservation program. “What we are,” says Hinz, who coordinates the initiative on behalf of the member organizations and citizens, “is a voluntary, incentive-based partnership that brings people and funding sources together to protect wetlands and riparian areas.”

Nor is Hinz your typical wetland conservation program coordinator. He works as a catalyst to create various partnerships among a wide range of groups and individuals working to conserve Montana’s valuable wetlands. He also provides advice on applying for grants, and he helps citizens and organizations learn why wetlands need protection and where to find funding to protect those most severely threatened.

Clean, abundant water
Most people, if they think of wetlands at all, imagine a reed-ringed marsh where mallards paddle. But a wetland is actually any area covered by shallow water, or containing waterlogged soils, that grows water-loving plants. Montana contains a wide range of wetlands, from peatland fens in the northwest to prairie potholes north of the Hi-Line, and from marshes along tributaries of Flathead Lake to the floodplain wetlands bordering the Missouri, Yellowstone, and other rivers.

Because these spongy areas store and purify water, essential to all life, scientists consider wetlands among the most important ecological components of Montana’s landscape. “Wetlands safeguard Montana’s supply of clean water,” says Hinz. “In a state like ours, where droughts can go on for years and where people are increasingly fighting for scare water resources, they’re especially important.”

In addition, wetlands help reduce severe flooding by absorbing spring runoff like a sponge, and then meting it out throughout the year. They also provide habitat for fish and wildlife (including rare species such as whooping cranes), provide places for recreation such as hunting and bird watching, and add beauty to the landscape. “These are places we take our families, where we hunt, fish, watch wildlife, and spend leisure time,” says Hinz.

Wetlands also have utilitarian value, notes Jim Kittredge, pointing to the wetland he and his wife hope to restore and the alfalfa fields that surround it. “When that was full of water, it sub-irrigated the alfalfa during dry periods,” he says. “So there aren’t just wildlife benefits from restored wetlands. They also have direct benefits to farming.”

Some of Montana’s most ecologically important wetlands sit in the state’s driest region. Northern Montana east of the Rockies and north of the Hi-Line makes up the southwestern fringe of North America’s 300,000-square-mile Prairie Pothole Region, one of the most biologically rich landscapes on the continent. The region was formed by retreating glaciers leaving behind building-sized chunks of ice covered in dirt and rock. When the ice melted 12,000 years ago, the land sank into shallow depressions that pooled with water.

In April and May, just as hungry migrating shorebirds and puddle ducks arrive needing fuel for energy and egg-laying, a pothole’s waters warm quickly in the spring sun, filling with a rich stew of high-protein bird food such as midges, snails, fairy shrimp, and other invertebrates.
“The invertebrates provide calcium that’s particularly important for egg formation,” says Randy Renner, Ducks Unlimited regional biologist for Montana. Although Montana’s potholes aren’t nearly as numerous as those in North Dakota or Saskatchewan, they still produce prodigious numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds. “The potholes in northern Blaine and Phillips counties can have some of the highest pintail [duck] densities in North America,” Renner says.

Floodplain wetlands
Though a pothole more closely resembles the traditional portrait of a wetland, Hinz notes that the top priorities for the legacy partnership are actually floodplain wetlands along rivers: the Missouri, the lower Flathead, the Madison-Missouri corridor, and especially the Yellowstone.
“A lot of these rivers look okay,” says Hinz, “but insidious changes are affecting how they function and, in turn, their ability to supply clean water.”

Rivers need to flood occasionally. The high water scours pools and spills into adjacent flat, wooded areas—the floodplain—where it stands for several weeks, seeping down to recharge groundwater sources. The water also regenerates ecologically important shoreline vegetation, especially cottonwoods. Though cottonwood communities comprise less than one percent of Montana’s bird habitat, one-third of the bird species in the state use cottonwoods or their understory, says Janet Ellis, program director for Montana Audubon. For example, great blue herons and bald eagles nest in high branches, black-headed grosbeaks use the brushy understory, and thrushes nest on the ground below the towering trees. “If we lose our cottonwoods,” Ellis says, “many birds will be in trouble.”

Cottonwoods require river flooding to reproduce. When the water overflows riverbanks, it deposits fine, silty soil on sand and gravel bars. In late spring, as the floodwaters recede, mature cottonwoods begin releasing seeds that blow onto the wet, newly deposited soil, where they germinate in the warm summer sun.

On rivers such as the Missouri, where dams hold back floodwaters, and rocky riprap and dikes keep the water contained between banks, young cottonwoods are now scarce. A 1989 federal Bureau of Land Management study along the Missouri, from Fort Benton downstream 150 miles, found that for every 100 existing mature cottonwoods, only 80 new young ones were growing. At that rate, the river stretch will lose one-quarter of its cottonwoods over the next 50 years. In comparison, floodplains of ecologically healthy rivers such as the undammed Yellowstone contain, in some places, cottonwood saplings thick as hairs on a dog. “On the Yellowstone you’ll see cottonwoods of a dozen or more ages, representing the various floods over the past decades,” says Burt Williams, southeastern Montana project manager for The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit land conservation organization.

It’s no surprise that floods are the biggest threat to people who build in floodplains. Yet the biggest threat to healthy riparian floodplain wetlands are dams, dikes, and levees built to prevent flooding. Other wetland types similarly suffer from often-necessary or inevitable human intervention. They are drained to provide fertile farmland or pasture; filled with dirt to build homes and stores; or polluted with pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and other runoff from surrounding towns, roads, and farms. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana has lost 27 percent of its wetlands since European settlement. And the loss continues, despite several state and federal laws designed to save them—not to mention federal funding programs, the work of conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited, and a state migratory bird hunting stamp program begun in 1986 to raise wetland protection dollars. “What’s been missing,” says Hinz, “has been some sort of coordinating effort to increase awareness among landowners and groups to help them raise money to conserve Montana’s wetlands. That’s where I come in.”

Flathead wetland conservation
One example of the Montana Wetlands Legacy in action is the $2.5 million Weaver Slough Conservation Easement Project, which protects 1,200 acres along the Flathead River east of Kalispell. Included in the restoration are 150 acres of riparian wetlands and 200 acres of open water oxbow lake. Wildlife species such as nesting ospreys and bald eagles, pileated woodpeckers, river otters, and white-tailed deer will benefit from the protected habitats.

Susan How, project director for the Flathead Land Trust, says wetlands are increasingly drained to build new homes in fast-growing Flathead County.

“We wanted to secure easements before the land along the river was developed,” she says.
The wetland easements will also help maintain good water quality in Flathead Lake. Excess nutrients such as yard and crop fertilizer that enter a lake via streams and rivers can fuel blooms of algae, which eventually die. When decomposing, the tiny plants consume oxygen needed by fish and aquatic insects that fuel the underwater food chain. “Wetlands are crucial to Flathead Lake, because they filter out nutrients before they can get into the Stillwater, Whitefish, and Flathead rivers, which flow into the lake,” says Robin Steinkraus, executive director of a local conservation group called Flathead Lakers.

Just as a single wetland can purify water, provide wildlife habitat, and reduce flooding, so has the wetlands legacy partnership accomplished much with little. Its budget only covers Hinz’s salary and $20,000 per year in minor expenses such as printing. Yet in just two years the initiative has helped garner roughly $20 million in wetland project funding that might have been missed. One of the big money sources Hinz has been targeting is the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), which grants $20 million to $40 million per year for wetland projects nationwide. “Before we started this partnership, Montana just wasn’t applying for its share of that money like it could have been,” says Hinz. “We’ve substantially increased our annual applications, which means we’re getting more NAWCA grants for Montana wetland projects.”

That good news notwithstanding, wetland proponents note that it will take more than just funding to protect Montana’s remaining wetlands. Most harmful to floodplain wetlands along the Yellowstone River—and other major Montana rivers—is new home construction and the accompanying riprap and dikes that keep floods at bay. Though most of the Yellowstone still remains natural, bank armoring has boomed since the record floods of 1996 and 1997.

According to Williams, of The Nature Conservancy, 40 percent of the Yellowstone from Laurel to Billings now contains fortified banks. “That’s really starting to have a profound effect on the river,” says Williams. One river stretch of the Yellowstone near Billings has deepened and narrowed from an average of 8 feet deep and one-half mile wide to 30 feet deep and just half the width. Too much bank fortification could eventually turn the wild, free-flowing river into a rock-lined canal.

More than just cottonwoods are lost by such development, says Cindy Kittredge. She believes that the loss of healthy landscapes can actually diminish the very self-identity of the people who live nearby. “Landscapes shape the people who live within them,” Kittredge says. “They help define who we are. Healthy landscapes remind those of us in rural areas that we have a strong identity that’s closely and intelligently attuned to the land and the workings of nature.”

Want to help Montana’s wetlands? Hinz says landowners can protect river and stream habitats on their property through a variety of state and federal programs. Others can get involved with any of the groups in the sidebar at left to help raise funds for wetland protection and restoration projects. To learn more, call Hinz at (406) 994-7889.Bear bullet

Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors.

Many hands make Montana wetlands conservation work
Montana Wetlands Legacy coordinator Tom Hinz describes the initiative as a ”partnership,” comprising hundreds of concerned landowners and other citizens and more than two dozen organizational partners, including:

• American Bird Conservancy
• American Public Land Exchange
• American Rivers
• Aquatic Design and Construction
• Ducks Unlimited, Inc.
• Five Valleys Land Trust
• Flathead Land Trust
• Gallatin Valley Land Trust
• Montana Audubon
• Montana Conservation Corps
• Montana Department of Environmental Quality
• Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation
• Montana Department of Transportation
• Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
• Montana Natural Heritage Program
• Montana Natural History Center• Montana WaterCourse
• Pheasants Forever
• PPL Montana
• River Network
• Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
• The Conservation Fund
• The Nature Conservancy
• The Trust for Public Land
• U.S. Bureau of Land Management
• U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
• U.S.D.A. Forest Service
• U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service
• U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service