Blackfoot River Fund Update: MTU Launches First Project

Throughout the 2018 KettleHouse Amphitheater concert season, more than $106,000 were raised for the Blackfoot River Fund. The Fund was created through a partnership between the Logjam Foundation and Montana Trout Unlimited in order to conserve and protect the beautiful river that houses the Amphitheater.

Recently, Trout Unlimited started using funds to ensure that trout can properly migrate upstream. They’re maintaining irrigation ditches so fish don’t get trapped, while also enabling necessary water dispersion. Trout Unlimited’s Big Blackfoot Chapter Project Manager, Ryen Neudecker, has given us an in-depth look at their current work. You can read their update below:

Fish Screens: Keeping Trout in the River and Water in the Ditch 

This past spring, a teacher from Helmville school contacted the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited asking about an irrigation ditch behind the school that had some trout swimming in it.  The kids were excited about “rescuing” the fish and putting them back in the river.  Their teacher wondered if I knew anything about this particular ditch.  After doing a little research, it turns out that the ditch was one we were already working with the landowners on, including plans for a fish screen to be installed in the fall.

Over the past 31 years, we’ve had the opportunity to work with many different landowners on projects that upgrade their irrigation diversion to make them more fish-friendly.  These projects involve installing new head gates, building new instream structures that allow them to pull water, while ensuring fish can still migrate upstream, and installing fish screens to prevent trout from being trapped in irrigation ditches and lost to the river.  To date, we have installed 36 different screens in the valley and have seven different models that we’ve worked with.  Many of those screens were made by contractors or shops in the valley.

Our most recent project involved working on an irrigation diversion on Nevada Creek, an important stream for native westslope cutthroat trout, near Helmville.  We spent three years developing the project with two different families who own ranches first settled in 1867.  Both ranches are now being run by fourth and fifth generations of those families.  The irrigation diversion is an important water source for their operations, but the setup of the diversion in Nevada Creek consisted of tarps, boards and fenceposts and did not allow fish to move upstream while it was in place. Working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s “Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program,” Montana FWP, and with funding from the Blackfoot River Fund and Stockman Bank, this past October we were able to remove the old diversion across Nevada Creek and replace it with a naturalized rock structure that diverts water for irrigation while also restoring fish passage.  A new fish screen, called a Farmers Screen, was installed in the ditch which funnels water into the ditch and sends trout back to the river.  River Design Group out of Whitefish did the design work, and TNT Excavating from Ovando constructed the project.

“We used to spend hours each week trying to keep water running down the ditch and in the process the creek became impassable for native cutthroat trout and entrained them in the ditch,” said irrigator Kyle Graveley.  “This project has enabled us to become more efficient and conservative water users while benefitting the ecosystem and fishery. This project has been a win-win for both the watershed and our ranches.”

Next spring, BBCTU and partners look forward to taking Helmville school kids out to the diversion to show them the project and talk about how working together on these types of projects allows irrigation to continue and fish populations to improve.  Stay tuned for more updates on projects benefitting from the Blackfoot River Fund…..

For more information on how you can get involved, visit us on our Facebook page at Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited, MTU, Blackfoot River Fund, etc.

— Written by Ryen Neudecker