By Michael Howell
Friends of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge (Friends of the Refuge) has donated $3,000 to Montana Trout Unlimited (Montana TU) to be used in an ongoing restoration project along North Burnt Fork Creek as it passes through the Ellison Cattle Company ranch north of Stevensville.
Montana TU has devoted a lot of time and energy over the last few years to North Burnt Fork Creek with the aim of restoring and improving the fishery. The organization has conducted an inventory of all irrigation diversions off of the creek and met with landowners and ditch riders in its efforts to raise awareness and enlist cooperation in its plans to restore the waterway.
The organization has worked with owners of the Ellison Cattle Company ranch since 2010 in a cooperative effort that has successfully installed about 10,320 linear feet of fencing to protect the stream bank from degradation by grazing cattle. Over 1,000 seedlings were planted along 2,273 linear feet of the stream bank in newly protected areas. With help from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and local students, fish population data was gathered at the Supply Ditch diversion which poses a significant barrier to migrating fish, in the hope that a plan for mitigation may be devised. About $27,210 has been spent to date on the project.
North Burnt Fork Creek flows through private land until reaching the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge where, historically, it discharged into the Bitterroot River. This connection has been disrupted over the years by developments on the refuge, but newly adopted plans for refuge management include potential restoration of that historical connection. Friends of the Refuge recognize that restoration of the Burnt Fork fishery represents a direct benefit to the wildlife refuge and its current goals.
Over the last two years Friends of the Refuge has also donated $20,000 to the Bitterroot Land Trust to aid in establishing conservation easements up the Burnt Fork drainage that will also enhance watershed and wildlife values connected to the refuge. Two conservation easements protecting 354 acres on the Severson Ranch and 365 acres on the Schroeder ranch on Sunset Bench have been successfully completed with much of the funding coming from the county’s Open Lands Bond Program and the federal Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program. Three other easements are currently in the works that may protect another 517 acres. Four additional landowners in the area have also expressed an interest in placing conservation easements on their land which could add another 650 acres in easements to the area.
Following a dispute with Refuge staff a few years ago, Friends of the Refuge has been banned from participating in refuge activity or making any direct donations to refuge projects. As a result the organization has looked for alternative ways to benefit the refuge indirectly.