Volunteering in the Bull River Valley

Above: Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group Coordinator, Brita Olson, installs wire fencing around a conifer tree to protect it from browse along the Bull River. Stands of willow and cottonwoods, established amongst reed canarygrass, are pictured in the background. Photo credit: Cate Huisman.  

By Cate Huisman

To the uninitiated, it’s hard to imagine how the Bull River Valley in its current state could be improved upon. Clear water runs between bright green fields, and mountains with remnants of winter snow provide a dramatic backdrop to volunteers whenever they look up from their labors. A breeze wanders up the valley to cool them.

But an alarming amount of that green is reed canarygrass, a plant that has its charms and its place, but the Bull River Valley is not it. Two hundred years ago, when David Thompson first entered this area and met the natives who lived here, the river ran instead between bands of overhanging alders and willows, backed up by cottonwoods, spruce, and pine. Beaver helped to turn some of these trees into dams and riffles, and the shade over the shallows gave bull trout a place to spawn.

Once white settlers arrived, they wanted to clear the land for fields and pastures. But they found that the usual forage plants did not grow well in the swampy ground close to the river that flooded in the spring. Agricultural extension agents recommended reed canarygrass as an alternative. The settlers found that it took a few years to get a foothold, but after that, it thrived.

Those small farmers are mostly gone now, but along with the occasional collapsed log cabin or overgrown vestige of an orchard, the reed canarygrass remains. The native species it replaced cannot compete with it to come back, and the shade and riffles are gone. So are the fish who used to spawn in those cool shallows.

Enter Brita Olson and the Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group, a collaborative of several organizations working together to restore the ecological integrity of the lower Clark Fork and its tributaries, of which the Bull River is one. Restoring the habitat is a large and labor-intensive undertaking, requiring all the volunteers she can muster. I was one on a sunny day in late May, having learned about the project through the Idaho Master Naturalists program.

Brita led us to a collection of “exclosures”—fenced sites created to keep browsing animals out, so that ambitious young returning natives like cottonwoods and spruce could get a foothold. The exclosures had suffered over the winter from snow load, and it was evident that hungry foragers had squirmed under the fence in some places to try the young trees. Our job was to dismantle the exclosures and use the wire fencing we took from them to create enclosures around the desirable young trees that had survived.

We were free to innovate as we chose, cutting up the fencing, finding the seedlings to protect, and using the materials already at hand to create the new enclosures. The watershed group provided tools, and Brita shared her experience as to the best approaches to cutting and folding wire, removing fence clips, and pounding posts. The result was that we could feel like we had figured out and done something useful by the time we left our many little protected trees behind.

A side benefit was that Brita’s knowledge of the area was a wonder, so we were able to learn about the plants, animals, and history of the area as we worked. One volunteer even got some ideas for local hiking trails.

Brita will be continuing with this project throughout the summer and fall. If you would like to learn about the watershed and spend some time working outdoors in a beautiful setting, you can contact her at 208-304-3852. Work will include maintaining fencing around vegetation as we did, weeding, assisting Brita in collecting photo points, as well as collecting and planting willow cuttings in the fall.

Bull River revegetation efforts are made possible by numerous private landowners and organizations working collaboratively with the Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group: Avista, Green Mountain Conservation District, Kootenai National Forest, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and Natural Resources Conservation Service.