Bull River Watershed Protection Project

Posted: Oct 17, 2008
Written by: 
Brendan Smith

“[The Bull River Watershed Protection Project] has been one of the most productive and successful collaborations that I’ve ever been involved in,” says Mark Elsbree, vice president of The Conservation Fund’s Northwest Region.

 Photo coursey of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.

Location: Northwest Montana 

Objective: The Bull River Watershed Protection Project has protected more than 2,500 acres of former mining and timber company land, resulting in the creation of the Bull River Wildlife Management Area between the East and West Cabinet Mountains. The project preserves critical habitat for threatened bull trout and maintains a wildlife corridor for threatened grizzly bears, elk, Canada lynx, and other species.

Participants: Avista Corp., The Conservation Fund, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Plum Creek Timber Company, Genesis Mining Company, Revett Minerals, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  

History: The Cabinet Mountains got their name from French explorers who thought the craggy peaks looked like a series of cabinets when viewed from the valleys below. From its headwaters in the southwestern slopes of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, the Bull River flows 18 miles to its junction with the Clark Fork River, east of the small town of Noxon, Montana. 

The Bull River and nearby creeks are the most important spawning grounds for bull trout in the area. In 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the fish as threatened across its range in the Lower 48, including Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and California.

Bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) have struggled to survive in part because they have some of the most exacting habitat requirements of any salmonid. They need very cold water, clean and stable stream channels, and undercut banks with large logs or other cover. The fish also need unblocked migratory corridors, which presents a challenge on the lower Clark Fork River where the Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge dams block the river’s natural flow. The dams inhibit the passage of juvenile fish migrating downstream to Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho and adult fish traveling upstream to spawn in the Bull River and other tributaries.

The Bull River Watershed Protection Project formed to protect one of the few remaining privately-owned parcels of land near the headwaters of the Bull River. The project was an outgrowth of the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement, an unprecedented collaborative effort to relicense the Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge dams. Operated by Avista Corp., the two dams power the Clark Fork Hydroelectric Project, which generates enough clean energy to meet the annual needs of 235,000 households.

In the 1990s, Avista began planning for the relicensing of the two 1950s-era dams. The licenses for both dams were set to expire in the next decade, and Avista wanted to avoid the contentious, legal battles that often occur between power companies and various stakeholders in relicensing applications before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). 

In 1996, Avista began meeting with a broad group of stakeholders with the help of a neutral facilitator. Called the Clark Fork Relicensing Team, the collaborative effort established five technical working groups to tackle issues relating to the dams, including fisheries, water resources, wildlife, wetlands, land use, recreation, and cultural resources.

The meetings, natural resources studies, and other legwork paid off in 1999 when Avista and 26 stakeholder groups signed the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement, leading to FERC’s approval of new 45-year licenses for both dams ahead of schedule. The settlement was the first comprehensive, pre-filing settlement for a large hydroelectric project. Participants in the settlement included Idaho Rivers United, Rock Creek Alliance, Elk Creek Watershed Council, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and other environmental groups. Four Native American tribes in the area and various local, state, and federal agencies also signed the settlement.

As part of the agreement, Avista established a comprehensive restoration plan to increase the viability of native salmonids, including bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. As part of those mitigation efforts, Avista spearheaded the Bull River Watershed Protection Project (BRWPP).

Accomplishments: Launched in 2001, the BRWPP identified a crucial piece of private property needed to protect spawning grounds for the bull trout. Located on the watershed divide between the headwaters of the Bull River and Lake Creek drainages, the property included a mile of the Bull River, a half-mile stretch of shoreline on Bull Lake, and a large spring-fed wetlands complex lined with cedar and hemlock.

 Map of project area courtsey of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.
For a larger image, click here.

Sections of the property, owned by Plum Creek Timber Company and Genesis Mining Company, were slated for residential development, which could have jeopardized bull trout habitat, winter range for elk and other species, and an important wildlife corridor between the East and West Cabinet Mountains.

“It’s just got a tremendous diversity of habitat in a small area in a key location,” says Alan Wood, wildlife mitigation coordinator with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

In 2003 and 2004, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks secured $4.6 million in Habitat Conservation Plan Land Acquisition grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to purchase 1,164 acres from Plum Creek Timber Company. To meet a private funding match requirement, Avista bought an adjacent 716-acre parcel from Genesis Mining Company. The Conservation Fund helped with bridge financing and negotiations for the land sales.

The publicly owned property was combined with 157 acres from Avista to create the Bull River Wildlife Management Area, which is managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Avista also donated a conservation easement on its remaining 559-acre parcel.

“It has been one of the most productive and successful collaborations that I’ve ever been involved in,” says Mark Elsbree, vice president of The Conservation Fund’s Northwest Region. “It was amicable, more than amicable, with people really working together. I think there was a real solid goal and vision that everyone bought into.”

The Bull River Wildlife Management Area was dedicated in May 2005. Public access is limited to non-motorized day uses, and the area is closed in the winter to protect winter rangeland.

In 2007, an additional 655 acres was protected by members of the partnership. Plum Creek Timber Company was planning to build roads and develop a subdivision on property including Noggle Creek and key habitat for threatened grizzly bears. In another deal brokered by The Conservation Fund, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks purchased 255 acres that were added to the Bull River Wildlife Management Area. Revett Minerals bought 400 adjacent acres and donated a conservation easement as part of the company’s grizzly bear mitigation efforts related to its attempts to open the Rock Creek Mine. Federal approvals for the silver-and-copper mine next to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness have triggered lawsuits from a coalition of environmental groups, which contend the mine will contaminate streams and harm bull trout and grizzly bears.

Under the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement, Avista has moved ahead with its efforts to protect bull trout. The agreement includes a management committee, comprised of the 27 groups that signed the settlement, which meets at least twice a year to approve ongoing mitigation and enhancement efforts.

Avista is exploring methods of fish passage on the lower Clark Fork River at the Cabinet Gorge dam, which is 58 miles downriver from the Noxon Rapids dam. During spawning runs, Avista uses boats with electrofishing equipment to stun and capture bull trout below the Cabinet Gorge dam. A DNA test from a captured fish identifies the tributary where it spawns, and the fish are then trucked and released near the tributary, says Nate Hall, Avista’s terrestrial program leader who works on wildlife issues.

Juvenile fish swimming downriver also have been captured and released below the dams, while others have passed through the dams and survived. Avista is conducting a study on the survival rates in the two groups. Avista also is using part of a $1 million North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant to acquire two additional conservation easements in the Bull River drainage.


 Photo courtsey of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

Challenges/constraints: The low numbers of bull trout and the difficulties involved in fish passage at the dams have been daunting. A spawning run may include only 100 bull trout, and captured fish can be accidentally injured or killed by electrofishing methods.

An experimental fish passage system at the Noxon Rapids dam was unsuccessful, so Avista is evaluating other options there. The company decided against developing a hatchery because bull trout are very specific in their migration routes to different tributaries, Hall says.

Securing funding for the various land transactions was challenging, says Elsbree with The Conservation Fund. Each group also had to look past its particular agenda to reach consensus in the partnership.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks still hopes to acquire funding to purchase property or conservation easements on 30,000 acres of timber land north of the Bull River Wildlife Management Area, Wood says. He credits Avista for bringing the various partners together to create the wildlife management area and for extending conservation efforts beyond the area’s borders.

“They got this really good group all pulling together in the same direction,” Wood says. “It really is a terrific model of collaboration, and this Bull River project is just one of many that Avista has done that has highlighted that cooperation.”  

For more information: Avista Corp.   

The Conservation Fund  
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks       
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