Revegetation is an ongoing effort

The end of each year often provides opportunity for reflection on past work and achievements, while the start of a new year fuels the generation of lofty goals. A large accomplishment in 2018 for the Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group, Green Mountain Conservation District, and partners was completing final implementation of the largest revegetation project along the Bull River to-date. This single effort, which began in 2014, includes plantings on nine private properties and additional public lands along approximately 14,200 feet of stream bank. Coupled with past efforts on additional private properties, well over 3 miles of streambank along the Bull River has been replanted with native trees and shrubs.

These areas were formerly swaths of reed canarygrass (the grass dominating the streambanks in the photo above). This grass, originally introduced as a hay grass, forms a dense mat of sod and thatch which crowds out, shades, and prevents the natural regeneration of native woody plants. Unfortunately, without diverse root systems of large trees and woody shrubs, the grass provides limited stability to the river banks as the shallow grass roots can hold only the top layer of soil together. The river erodes the raw banks below, and chunks of reed canarygrass and sod that have been undercut fall into the river.

Montana Conservation Corps crew on a lunch break (overlooking the headwaters of the Bull River) during fall 2018.

Each year, Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group,
Green Mountain Conservation District, private landowners, and partners labor to protect the growing vegetation from ongoing competition from reed canarygrass, animal browse, and the eroding forces of the river which threaten to claim newly planted trees before their roots have established enough to hold the banks intact. Ongoing maintenance needs include weeding, repairing fencing, cleaning up damaged fencing or degraded weed barrier fabric (originally used to suppress reed canarygrass), etc. In October 2018, the Montana Conservation Corps (pictured at left) contributed to these efforts on multiple properties. Maintenance needs are expected every year.

Despite the continued revegetation efforts, reed canarygrass and erosion remain a common sight along the Bull River. Planting trees into reed canarygrass can seem a sisyphean task. However, year by year, the footprint of revegetation efforts is expanding. The tops of young trees are increasingly visible above the reed canarygrass (which can often grow to 5 – 6 feet in height). Below, young cottonwood trees (planted in 2017) reach above the level of reed canarygrass surrounding them (circled in red). In 2019, and each subsequent year, as the trees grow tall they will shade the river and provide habitat, and as the trees grow into the soil their roots will hold the river banks intact and reduce erosion. Collectively, these trees are contributing to a healthier Bull River. Learn more at lcfwg.org.

Young cottonwoods (circled in red) are visible above the reed canary grass.