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By Compiled and written by Caitlin Mitchell
Blackfoot Challenge Field Technician and Program Assistant 

Updates from the Challenge: A Quarter Century of Conservation Innovation

 

Caitlin Mitchell, March 2018

Citizen science volunteer and Ovando resident, Martha Swanson, collects a sample upstream from where ice still covers the creek.

A Note from Charles

Having known of the Blackfoot Challenge for more than a decade, and interacted with the group a bit in my time working in the Crown of the Continent, I was excited to be offered the directorship of one of the most exciting and innovative cooperative conservation organizations anywhere. The last few months have been a wild ride as I've raced to get up to speed on everything the organization does. The hospitality I have received and warm welcome, coupled with opportunities that have exceeded expectations, have made the last few months a great experience.

As the Blackfoot Challenge enters its 25th year of serving our watershed, it is an apt time to consider the great strides that have been made in collaboration with our many partners. In the early 1990s, the Blackfoot was considered an imperiled river with high pollutant loads from mines and declining populations of native fish. The landscape was threatened by exurban development that could have destroyed the rural character of our watershed. The challenge was how to stitch together a degraded and fragmented landscape. Something we have largely succeeded in doing over the last quarter century though a collaborative process that is unique across North America.

An open, honest, consensus-based process that focuses on giving assistance and not taking credit is the hallmark of everything we do. Our work, however, has only just begun. We are increasingly faced with external threats, from drought (12 of the last 18 years) to wildfire to sustaining the economies of our rural communities. Then as now, there are no simple answers. Rather, we will continue to rely on this innovative and principled process that conserves communities and the lands we depend on.

Springtime in the watershed

As spring finally arrives with the melting of snow, budding of wildflowers and waking up of bears, it also brings along some Blackfoot Challenge program updates.

We all know quite well that water levels have been exceptionally high these past few weeks and snowpack still sits on the ridges of our watershed. To our Drought Response team, these conditions provide hope that this summer there might be relief from another drought year.

With the likelihood we won't have to focus so much on implementing drought response this summer, we can instead better attend to helping individual drought plan participants update their water conservation plans. Updates will answer to recently adjudicated water rights and any personal management changes landowners may have made in the last decade. As part of this process we hope to help folks identify potential long-term water conservation measures that would ease the burden of annual drought response restrictions.

Spring run-off also marks the beginning of our stream monitoring program. All of the creeks we've monitored for the last five to eight years run through the Rice Ridge wildfire's southwest perimeter and some monitored by Clearwater Resource Council flow within the Liberty fire area. This presents us with an incredible "before and after" opportunity to compare baseline data collected prior to the 2017 wildfire season with post-burn conditions.

While a natural process, wildfire is known to expose soils and deposit ash, leading to an increase in sediment loading for some time before nature is able to heal itself. Also of concern are the effects of fire suppression efforts on our streams including vegetation removal, increased machinery use near and through creeks and fire retardant inadvertently entering waterways.

As of yet, turbidity levels of streams within the fire perimeter are no greater than those outside it. We do, however, anticipate increased amounts of total nitrogen and total phosphorus in areas where fire retardant was dropped near or in streams, and a rise of sediment and ash content.

Our cohort of citizen science volunteers who venture through rain, snow or sunshine to collect samples helps our stream monitoring efforts immensely. All have been impressed in seeing the burn patterns across the landscape and share our interest in discovering the effects wildfire may have on our water systems.

Spring also marks the return of our feathered friends. As wetlands fill, they create vital habitat for migratory bird species, including our much loved trumpeter swans that nest in the watershed. Residents marveled at the unusually high numbers of waterfowl that came through the area earlier this spring.

Elaine Caton, April 2018

Citizen science volunteer, Brie Guilmette, and field technician Caitlin Mitchell set off from Rich Ranch to collect samples despite the wet and heavy snow.

Thousands of migrating snow geese and hundreds of tundra swans, both of which nest and summer in the high arctic, passed through the Clearwater and Blackfoot Valleys this spring. Due to an unusually long winter up north, these birds took advantage of local wetlands to rest and refuel while waiting for ice and snow to melt in Canada and Alaska (visit http://blackfootswans.org/SwanProject/SwanBlog/ for fascinating information about goose scouts!).

After the snow geese and tundra swans headed north in late April, many Blackfoot trumpeter swans remained behind. Most if not all of our nesting pairs from previous summers have returned, along with their cygnets, as well as many others that have hatched in the Blackfoot since we began the restoration program in 2005.

Any questions on our Drought Response program can be sent to Jennifer@blackfootchallenge.org, questions on stream monitoring can be sent to Caitlin@blackfootchallenge.org, and questions regarding our Trumpeter Swan Restoration program can be sent to elaine@blackfootchallenge.org.

 

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