Seeley Swan Pathfinder -


Blackfoot Challenge 

Updates from the Challenge: Weeds, Water and Swans


by Elaine Caton (Swan Program Coordinator), Karen Laitala (Weed Coordinator), Zoe Leake (Intern), Sara Schmidt (Outreach Coordinator) and Jennifer Schoonen (Water Steward)

Staying On Top of Invasives – The New and the Old

This coming Monday, the Blackfoot Challenge and Powell County Weed District will host an update on invasive weed control strategies at the Ovando School Gym. Karen Laitala, Weed Coordinator for both groups, says she is pulling the event together in response to landowner interest in how to treat cheatgrass and other new invaders, as well as to learn about new options for treating more well-established and persistent weeds like houndstongue and knapweed.

Cheatgrass, still considered a new invader, is becoming more prevalent in the Blackfoot watershed. "We've had a very hard time finding an herbicide that targets only one grass species," said Laitala.

Invited speakers will discuss a variety of new biocontrol and herbicide treatments that may help in an integrated approach to combating invasive species.

Biological weed control is the deliberate release of specialized natural enemies from the weed's native range to reduce the weeds abundance or spread in its introduced range. Biocontrol methods generally suppress host weed populations but will likely not eradicate them. Therefore, integrating other weed management methods with biocontrol is critical.

"I'm a big fan of integrated management; you can have some pretty effective results when you combine methods like hand-pulling, mowing, biocontrol and herbicide," said Laitala. Reestablishing native and desirable species can also help edge out invaders.

Melissa Maggio-Kassner, the Montana Biocontrol Project Coordinator, will provide attendees with an update on some new biocontrol approaches that may be of use to land managers in Montana, including a soil bacteria that may help with cheatgrass management, a root weevil that attacks houndstongue, a new stem galling insect that attacks yellow toadflax and will hopefully be approved for field release in 2017, a stem and flower mite that attacks whitetop and will hopefully be approved for field release in 2017, as well as two galling insects that attack Russian knapweed.

Steve Saunders with Bridger AgVentures, LLC and Bayer Crop Science, will focus on herbicide weed treatments in his talk, emphasizing the different herbicide modes of actions and why they are relevant herbicide selections. Sauders will also discuss recent research on cheatgrass control using indaziflam, a recently registered herbicide that is showing signs of effectiveness against annual grasses and broadleaf weeds while not reducing the diversity of surrounding desirable species.

The weed talks begin at 6 p.m. in the Ovando School Gym. Refreshments will be provided and for those interested, so will recertification credits. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to reach out to Karen at

Water Supply Predictions

On April 10, Northside KettleHouse hosted the Blackfoot Challenge, the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited and Blackfoot guides and anglers to discuss the 2017 water supply outlook for the Blackfoot River.

"A good snow year in the high country means a good year for the Blackfoot," said Ron Pierce, fisheries biologist from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

While much of the mid- and low-elevation snowpack has melted out, plenty of stores remain in the high country to help reduce the risk of drought this year.

"March temperatures are starting to melt things, but nothing over 7,000 feet yet," said Ethan Mace, a hydrologist for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

2016 was one of the worst drought years on record for the Blackfoot, with river discharges falling below 500 cfs in July and August. Trends on the Blackfoot in 2017 are projected to be above the 50th percentile due to near and above average snowpack in the Blackfoot watershed. That's good news for native fish.

Bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout require cold water and clean tributaries in order to spawn. Westlope cutthroat trout have been observed migrating as far as 90 miles to reach upstream tributaries, Pierce said, where they rely on adequate flows to spawn. According to the latest reports, this year will be a high and cold-water year.

These updates paint a more positive outlook for anglers and fishing guides this year. But, the unpredictability of water supply means there's always a potential need for drought response measures in the Blackfoot.

For anyone interested in participating in the Blackfoot Drought Response Committee and following drought updates, information is regularly posted to the Blackfoot Challenge Facebook page and website. Also don't hesitate to reach out to Jennifer Schoonen, Blackfoot Water Steward, directly at

Annual Migrations

As spring rears its head, some residents of the Blackfoot and Clearwater Valleys may see Trumpeter Swans returning to the area. Where, you may ask, have they been all winter?

Remarkably, many of the trumpeters banded and released in the Blackfoot fly only as far south as the Ruby Valley for the winter, near the towns of Sheridan, Twin Bridges and Alder. Warm springs and a somewhat milder winter climate keep even some still waters open in this area, providing foraging sites for waterfowl.

Migrating is dangerous and energy-intensive and the shortest distance you can go and still find enough food to survive the winter is probably the best bet. Several diligent and sharp-eyed folks in the area keep an eye out for swans and let us know when they see them, particularly if they are sporting the fashionable red collars and leg bands worn by trumpeters released in Montana.

This year in the Ruby Valley we found a pair that has a territory in the Blackfoot but hasn't nested yet. We also found two of our Blackfoot swan families. All three of these pairs of swans spent last winter in the Ruby as well, in the same few ponds where we found them this year.

Seeing these swans in both places is a reminder of how vulnerable swans–and all migratory birds–can be. We may provide great stewardship and habitat here in the Blackfoot, but when they leave for the winter, as most of "our" birds do, their fate is largely out of our hands.

In both migration pathways and wintering grounds they must find relative safety from predators, weather and human-caused dangers (powerlines as one example of these, in the case of swans). They must also find good enough food sources to keep them not just alive but robust enough to make the return journey to nesting sites and arrive in healthy condition. It's a lot to hope for!

Fortunately for Trumpeter Swans and other birds that winter there, the Ruby Valley also has many landowners, agency employees and nonprofits dedicated to conserving habitat and the working land that provides it. These individuals keep an eye on wintering waterfowl, along with all the day-to-day work they do, making the Ruby a welcoming and safe place for many bird species.

You can help us track the whereabouts of returning Trumpeter Swans this spring. Just shoot an email to Swan Program coordinator Elaine Caton at with the details of your sighting.


Reader Comments


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2019