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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“In this valley, we have ten times the work to do that we have already done,” says Laszlo, “But if you do the math you realize that when we get to the finish line, the fish and wildlife improvements will be a thousand times greater than the remarkable results we have already seen.”
The Deal Makers
Visionaries like Hazlewood and Hinz, and fisheries biologist Don Peters of DJP Aquatic Resources, worked to restore the spring creek and the wetlands complex. But the restoration did not stop when the bulldozers shut off.
Recognizing the need to permanently protect this restored treasure from development, the Laszlo family also had to ensure that O’Dell Creek and the Granger Ranch could always be managed for agriculture. To meet this challenge, a number of key stakeholders worked to achieve the dual goals of ensuring the economic viability and productivity of the land, while still protecting the rural character, open spaces, and treasured views.
The Trust For Public Land (TPL), a national land conservation organization, and the Montana Land Reliance (MLR), a regional land trust, helped the Granger Ranch to realize these objectives.
Both land trusts had previously identified the 14,000-acre Granger Ranch as a target for permanent protection. How could they not? In all directions the view is the same: breathtaking mountains jutting above the broad terraced valleys bisected by the most famous trout stream in America. In addition to the headwaters of O’Dell Creek, the ranch includes 6 miles of the Madison River.
Both agencies played key roles in protecting this critical block of land along the middle Madison River. “Without TPL’s creative thinking, hard work, and willingness to accommodate our issues,” says Laszlo, “this deal to conserve upper O’Dell and its adjacent uplands would not have happened.”
Land trusts across the country and their counterparts in the public sector have made a business of protecting open spaces, forests, and river bottoms. Working quietly and effectively, land trusts now hold conservation easements on more than 4 million acres of private lands in the U.S.
MLR is setting the gold standard nationwide by virtue of the total lands it is charged with protecting in perpetuity—a stunning 800,000 acres. Similarly, TPL is making big impacts all across the country, conserving land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens, and other natural places. TPL has permanently conserved more than 2.8 million acres, purchasing interests in real estate worth almost $6.3 billion.
The primary instrument for conserving land is the conservation easement. Whether donated or purchased as a bargain sale, this deed restriction legally prohibits the subdivision or development of the private land it encumbers. It is the conservation community’s weapon of choice in preserving ranch lands, farms, river systems, and open space from the rush of
development and subdivision.
These easements also protect the environment from a host of nicks and cuts, including items such as lawns, roads, culverts, siltation and other pollution from runoff, that in isolation are seemingly innocuous, but together cause the degradation of water quality and riparian habitat that are part of development.
In the case of the Granger Ranch, TPL tapped into two key federal funding sources: the Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act standard grant program. Funding from these two programs allowed TPL to secure the two conservation easements covering the Granger Ranch. The two easements are now held by MLR for long-term monitoring and enforcement.
The restoration partnership also included funding from Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana FWP, the USDA Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and PPL MT (Montana’s largest electrical utility).
Those who have fished the Madison for several decades may have noticed a steady hatch of homes lining the riverbanks. While it’s hard to argue that fishing outside your front door is nothing short of paradise, it is also hard to argue that such a progression eventually leads to a loss for everyone in the quality of the fishing experience, the quality of the water flowing off the land and into the river itself, and the ability of the landscape and the river to retain its magnificence.
Using a neighborly approach, MLR and TPL have protected 11 miles of The Madison River from Varney Bridge to the town of Ennis. This stretch of the river includes the Granger Ranch easement and a huge percentage of O’Dell Creek’s total length.
Equally impressive is the fact that almost half of the private land in the Madison Valley (almost 120,000 acres or more than 187 square miles) is now under conservation easement, and this doesn’t include the 114,000-acre easement that covers Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch immediately to the north.
Because of the successful example set by this restoration and conservation project, the positive effects to the overall stream ecology (carefully documented over the past five years), have the potential to grow exponentially and provide a lasting benefit to future generations of Montanans and the thousands of travelling anglers who enjoy the rivers downstream.
Hydrologists and restoration experts categorized the twists and turns of the newly restored O’Dell Creek as Rosgen E and C channels. These meandering stream types with their gently sloped banks cut across meadows of deep grass with a precise pattern of widths and depths that allows them to self-clean, grow important bank-stabilizing wetland vegetation, and sustain abundant insect populations.
Even without engineering backgrounds, most fishermen recognize that these types of creeks are rich in insect life and trout habitat. Like Slough Creek, Silver Creek, and other famous fisheries of this type, O’Dell has the potential to be a trout factory, pumping huge numbers of newly minted fish into the river systems downstream.
“The autumn after we finished our very first phase of this work, I was walking the streambanks studying the remarkable change that had occurred when I saw clouds of murky water,” Laszlo says. “This water was normally gin clear. My heart sunk because I thought something was wrong.
“Then I saw dozens of trout digging redds in the riffles. The water was chocolate brown. I immediately realized that far from being a problem, the restoration had accomplished what we had hoped for: trout returning to make O’Dell their home and rearing grounds.”
For Laszlo and his family the project has become much more personal than charts of biomass or the fascinating data sets being collected by biologists. On summer days he walks along the creek with his young nieces and nephew, watching schools of trout glide amongst the watercress and dart back to the undercut banks. These are new sights on an old ranch, but with conservation protections in place, they will provide inspiration, education, and enjoyment for generations to come.
Rocci Aguirre is the director of land protection for the Finger Lakes Land Trust. Nat Gillespie is the director of the Eastern Lands Protection Project of Trout Unlimited.