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Crow Creek Restoration Project completed

More than a decade ago, several agency partners rehabilitated a section of Crow Creek that had been impacted by the proximity of Bonneville Power Administration power lines.

“If you look at that stretch now, you would think it’s a totally different place,” said Jason Blakney, fisheries biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park. “It just looks like a totally different stream.”

Low growing shrubs have come back to provide bank stability, and the channel was reconstructed using natural materials to provide complex habitat for native fish and riparian species.

NorthWestern Energy, along with Montana FWP, Avista, Lolo National Forest and the Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group, recently completed another rehabilitation project along an adjoining 600-foot section of Crow Creek. The partners are optimistic that the outcome will be as significant as the 2007 project.

A NorthWestern Energy power line, built in the 1940s, crosses Crow Creek just downstream of the BPA line and the previous stream restoration project that was completed in 2007. The first step of this restoration project was working with the Lolo National Forest, to remove a power pole that was previously located in the flood plain of the creek. NorthWestern installed taller poles, allowing for a longer span over the creek, making the pole in the flood plain unnecessary. That allowed a service road through the flood plain to also be removed. And vegetation can grow taller without interfering with the power line. As part of this power pole replacement work NorthWestern can better maintain reliable transmission service and facilitate important environmental improvements.

Prior to the restoration, a lot of vegetation had been removed along the creek, causing the bank to be unstable, said NorthWestern Energy biologist Jon Hanson. The creek had eroded into a wide, shallow stream channel, lacking suitable fish habitat. Crow Creek runs through a confined glaciated valley, and the creek should be narrow, following the natural grade.

To restore the creek to its natural channel, the entire base of the channel was regraded to be in line with the valley floor. Trees were utilized to help stabilize the bank and channel, create complex habitat and return the stream reach to a naturally functioning channel. The stream now flows over logs and rocks, creating deep pools of slow moving water. The bank was stabilized, and willow cuttings were transplanted to increase vegetation, which will shade the creek. By spring, those willows and other vegetation should take hold.

Crow Creek is home to native sculpin, westslope cutthroat trout and also the threatened bull trout. It is a unique area because of the lack of non-native fish which can impact the survival of these three key native fish species. It is a priority tributary for restoration and natural resource protection because of these unique characteristics.

Since the adjacent 2007 restoration project on Crow Creek, there has been a steady increase in the number of westslope cutthroat trout in the stream.

“We have evidence that it was really good for the fish,” Jason said.

The latest project should have a similar benefit to the native fishery.

“It’s excellent habitat,” Jason said. “In 10 years, this reach is going to look pretty darn natural.”

In addition to habitat improvements in Crow Creek other fish management actions downstream are contributing to improved trout numbers. During the late summer Fish, Wildlife and Parks is rescuing stranded native bull trout from stream sections that dry up and transporting them to Crow Creek where adequate summer flows exist.

The motivation for projects like this is usually rooted in improving fisheries. However, stream restoration efforts have huge ripple effects, said Brita Olson, coordinator for the Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group.

“This has other benefits for most species that are native to this area,” she said.

This work presented a unique opportunity for partnerships in the Lower Clark Fork region. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group identified a need for expanding restoration in the area and then worked collaboratively with the Lolo National Forest to complete the necessary environmental review process. Avista owns and operates two hydroelectric facilities on the Lower Clark Fork River and provided a portion of the funding through its Protection, Mitigation and Enhancement program for native fish species. NorthWestern Energy owns the Thompson Falls hydroelectric facility and also has a Protection, Mitigation and Enhancement program for bull trout. The two utility companies partnered to financially support the restoration along with Montana FWP’s Future Fisheries program.

Overall, this was a big project that will have a big impact, Jason said. The opportunity to do these kind of projects, where all the partners and the funding comes together, is rare.

Story and photos courtesy of NorthWestern Energy.