Jeff Laszlo makes the 7-mile drive to Granger Ranch almost daily. He traverses rangeland essentially unchanged from the 1930s when his great-grandfather, David Granger, Sr., began ranching in Montana’s Madison Valley. Winding through part of the 14,000-acre working cattle ranch is O’Dell Creek, a spring creek and key spawning tributary to the Madison River.
The creek is the site of an exceptional six-year partnership forged to protect and restore it and re-create one of southwest Montana’s largest wetlands. In doing so, this partnership is not only altering the landscape of the West but perhaps the very nature of conservation itself.
O’Dell Creek is now pumping greater volumes of cleaner, colder water year-round into the Madison River just north of Ennis, where water temperature issues are critical. In a few short years of work, the O’Dell headwaters are returning to prime spring creek habitat and an important spawning ground for the rainbow and brown trout of the Madison River. Amazingly, despite what’s already been accomplished, The O’Dell Restoration Partnership is just getting started.
Resource Under Pressure
In the 1950s, no one understood the importance of wetlands or their relationship to fisheries like O’Dell. Consequently, all across the arid West, wet areas were ditched and drained to increase grazing and haying capacity, including the O’Dell Creek headwaters and wetlands. Many of its meanders were also dredged and straightened. With the assistance of the federal government, miles of
drainage canals were dug deep into the ground to intercept the countless springs that combine to produce a flow of 200 cubic feet per second (cfs). Ironically, ditches were then excavated to irrigate what had become a dry swamp, and the stream became shallow, full of silt, and much less hospitable to trout.
This historic transformation was a net loss for O’Dell Creek and the biologically diverse ecosystem the wetland hydrology supported. While agricultural production improved modestly, critically important wetland, wildlife, and fisheries values were literally washed away.
Beyond the Riffle
The O’Dell Creek restoration is not simply the tale of a trout stream brought back from a state of degradation. It is the story of a complete ecosystem restoration, with benefits to the entire assemblage of life that depends on and now thrives in this spring creek environment. What sets O’Dell apart from many other trout stream restoration projects is the vision for permanently protecting the land with a conservation easement after restoration, and the commitment to scientifically monitor the developments that occur daily. This comprehensive vision included gathering the baseline data documenting the state of the creek and its surrounding wetland in its pre-restoration condition including water temperature, trout numbers and distribution, macroinvertebrate populations, waterfowl, and vegetation.
Bird researchers from The University of Montana’s Avian Science Center along with hydrologists, state fisheries and wildlife biologists, plant ecologists, and engineers were all charged with producing the information needed to execute and understand the results of this work. Now, these reams of data are growing and the numbers don’t lie. O’Dell Creek and the wetland ecosystem that sustains it have responded beyond anyone’s expectations. And no one knows how far these improvements may go.
Continued restoration of O’Dell Creek occurs in phases each summer. From 2005 to 2009, excavators and bulldozers rebuilt 36,415 linear feet of new stream channel and simultaneously plugged and filled 15,951 feet of ditches, creating or rebuilding more than 500 acres of wetlands. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) biologists are surveying segments of the reconstructed
spring creek biannually.
In 2006, before the instream work began, brown and rainbow trout in the shallow, ditchlike headwaters rarely exceeded 4 inches. In the same restored reach of O’Dell in 2008, biologists found increased fish biomass with more brown and rainbow trout in the 10- to 14-inch range. In 2008, the fisheries survey also documented its first juvenile mountain whitefish. While disparaged by many as the redheaded salmonid stepchild to trout, whitefish are actually a sensitive native species in decline in many Western rivers, and perhaps another sign that the natural biodiversity is rebuilding.
The resurrection of O’Dell Creek will likely provide major benefits to the wild trout population of the Madison River in the form of colder, cleaner water. At the headwaters, summer water temperatures have been reduced by 4 to 5 degrees F., and will most likely improve with each successive phase of restoration as wetland plant species recolonize O’Dell’s now saturated banks.
The literal increase in miles and miles of habitat, as the formerly straightened sections of O’Dell Creek are returned to a naturally sinuous, meandering form in combination with clean spawning riffles and connected wetlands and side channels, will likely improve the recruitment of juvenile and adult brown and rainbow trout to the Madison. But the greatest benefit over time may be the fully protected delivery of cold, clean water to the Madison all summer long in a changing climate that threatens extended droughts and higher river water temperatures.
But as conservationists are learning, the restoration of the wetland hydrology is the key to restoration of spring creeks like O’Dell, and the benefits extend far beyond the actual trout water. This riparian wetland habitat comprises less than 3 percent of the entire Western United States landmass, yet it serves close to 90 percent of all species in the region for all or part of their life cycles. In 2004, before the restoration, the University of Montana Avian Science Center documented one pair of nesting mallard ducks and eight pairs of teal in the restoration area on Granger Ranch.
In 2009, researchers documented 76 pairs of ducks including 11 different species. A congregation of more than 2,000 Sandhill cranes used the site late last summer for the first time, drawn there by the restored floodplain. Avian biologists believe this already abundant congregation will continue to increase and that O’Dell Creek headwaters will soon have the largest flock of pre-migration Sandhill cranes anywhere in Montana.
In another survey, state botanists from Montana’s Natural Heritage Program identified four plants listed as species of concern.
“A tremendous diversity of plants and wildlife have responded almost instantaneously to the restoration. We really don’t know how far the recovery will go,” says Tom Hinz of The Montana Wetland Legacy Partnership “It’s absolutely spectacular, the vegetation, the animals, the fish. It is one of the best restoration projects in the West, which has led to an ever increasing partnership. People want to join in each year,” says Rob Hazlewood, a habitat restoration specialist and the president of Ranchland Wildlife Consultants, Inc.
From the innumerable miles of O’Dell Creek on the Granger Ranch, the restoration effort, like the water itself, is ready to travel downstream through an estimated 30 miles of twisting, braiding channels, gracefully flowing through this valley and onto the lands of neighboring landowners.
“When I first met Rob and he described to me his restoration concepts and vision,” says Jeff Laszlo, “I thought that he belonged in a straight jacket.” Now it is Laszlo who champions this partnership-based approach of restoring the land’s ecological condition and then protecting it through conservation easements.
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