By Michael Howell
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has completed and adopted a comprehensive conservation plan for the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge located north of Stevensville along the Bitterroot River. The plan will provide management direction on the 2,800-acre refuge for the next 15 years. It describes the vision for the future, as well as the management goals and objectives in the areas of wildlife and habitat management, monitoring and research, cultural resources, wildlife dependent recreation, partnerships, and refuge operations.
The planning process began in earnest in 2009 and several substantive issues confronting the refuge were identified. The issues included riparian habitat loss and fragmentation caused by the migration of the Bitterroot River; overgrown emergent vegetation and eroded levees and water management structures that have compromised the ability to properly manage wetland impoundments; reduction in the quality and diversity of upland habitats due to invasive plants and lack of native species; algal blooms that have diminished clarity and quality of refuge waters; inefficient water supply due to silted and overgrown supply ditches; invasive species that have become widespread and difficult to control; lack of baseline research, inventory, and monitoring data to guide management; small visitor contact area, outdated displays, and inadequate public access by trails; and inadequate staff to manage and enhance refuge habitats and visitor services.
One of the biggest and most far reaching changes in management direction will be a new approach towards river and floodplain management. The Bitterroot River is hydraulically unstable in the area and wants to wander across the floodplain creating a braided system that changes over time.
Historically, lateral migration of the river has been discouraged by land interests along the river—including those of the refuge—to protect existing roads, agricultural land, and the railroad bed and trestle on the north end of the refuge. The combination of irrigation ditches and associated infrastructure (culverts, water diversion structures), development (bridge crossings, riprapping), and land use changes has significantly altered the Bitterroot River’s channel form, structure, and movement within the Bitterroot Valley and its floodplain.
But holding the river in place has proven to be a continuing, costly, and only partially successful goal and, in fact, counterproductive to maintaining many of the refuge’s goals for habitat and wildlife diversity. The new management direction will involve trying to work with the river rather than fighting it. This will be done in a number of ways such as designing overflow channels and removing some existing infrastructure including some service roads and wetland impoundments to allow seasonal flooding and river migration. Restoring the natural connection of North Burnt Fork Creek with the Bitterroot River is one of the goals.
The plan also calls for enhancing visitor services, particularly the wildlife observation, environmental education, and interpretation programs. Plans involve expanding the visitor contact area into a full-fledged visitor center, and working with the County to make the county road through the refuge an “auto tour route” including pull-offs and interpretive signs. Current trails will be improved and a seasonal hiking trail may be added.
Plans also call for expanding the refuge staff by three and a half individuals to include an assistant refuge manager, a biological science technician, and a visitor services specialist.
The entire plan is available for download or viewing on the Service’s website at http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/planning.