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Streamside revegetation efforts in the Bull River continue

By Brita Olson

Every spring after the snow melts off in the valley, I make my way to the Bull River to check on the progress of ongoing revegetation efforts.

Accessing the river by land is often a bit of a trek, as I have to cross stream adjacent wetlands and navigate around numerous beaver runs and fallen branches and trees. Inevitably, at least once if not many times a year, I will miss one of these features and either fall in beaver run or trip myself up on an alder branch.

Still, this trek in April and early May is far easier than what it has become by July. Much of the valley bottom is dominated by reed canarygrass, a pernicious introduced grass species that can grow over 6 feet tall in streamside environments like that found along the Bull River. By mid-summer, one must wade through a sea of reed canarygrass and mosquitoes to find the river.

While having my view of the river blocked by reed canarygrass is frustrating, I am more than pleased when my view of the river is obscured by native shrub and tree species, such as douglas spirea, willow, alder, cottonwood, and conifers such as white pine or cedar.

A diverse streamside canopy and its root systems below the soil provides numerous benefits to streamside areas. This riverside vegetation community is referred to as riparian vegetation. Relative to a monoculture or single species swath of reed canarygrass, a streambank covered with native species reduces erosion; provides improved forage and cover for many wildlife species from resident and migratory songbirds, to large ungulates like moose, deer and elk; and provides overhanging cover and shade for fish species in the Bull River.

For five years, and nearing twenty years on some properties, the Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group, Green Mountain Conservation District, and other conservation organizations have partnered with landowners to replace reed canarygrass with woody riparian plant species such as those listed above.

Reed canarygrass is highly competitive and with root systems that are only 12 to 18 inches deep, provides little stability to the erosive streambanks along the river. It presents a great challenge to revegetation efforts along the river, but through persistent efforts native species can take hold.

Reed canarygrass is first suppressed with landscaping fabric or mechanically removed. Areas are then planted and fenced to provide new plantings protection from immediate browse by beaver or ungulates. Over 5 to 10 years, fencing and plantings are maintained before being removed. This is a long and laborious process, but when a cooperating landowner and I see a robust and healthy riparian area and hear all of the birds perched within the branches of a willow that we helped grow – I appreciate the results of the continued commitment by all involved to enhance our natural legacy.

In this video, beyond the sedge wetland, a hedge of willow and other shrub species blocks our view of the river and provides improved habitat beyond the reed canarygrass that they replaced.

Over ten private landowners in the Bull River and the Kootenai National Forest have partnered with the Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group and Green Mountain Conservation District to revegetation streamside areas on their land formerly dominated by reed canarygrass. Technical support is provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Through collaborative efforts, thousands of plants have been established, and the work still continues.

With support from Avista and the Montana Department of Natural Resources, the Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group and Green Mountain Conservation District continue to coordinate work with private landowners and promote various conservation projects, including the revegetation of streamside areas. Contact me at 406.203.4725 or for info about conservation opportunities on your land or to volunteer.