FWP seeking public comment on proposals to increase trout in Belt Creek watershed; plant trees in Giant Springs State Park

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is seeking public comment on draft environmental assessments for two proposed projects in the Great Falls region.

The first project is to increase the number of Westslope cutthroat trout within the Belt Creek watershed.

The species has “undergone substantial reductions in distribution and abundance throughout their native range. Genetically unaltered WCT presently occupy 6.2 percent of their historic habitat within the Belt Creek watershed. Carpenter Creek is one of ten streams within the Belt Creek watershed that still supports an unaltered WCT population; however, the population is only comprised of an estimated 591 fish which are confined to the upper 1.5 miles of stream,” according to the FWP draft environmental assessment.

Historic mining within the Carpenter Creek drainage contaminated the lower 3.2 miles of stream with effluent from at least 21 abandoned mines, according to the assessment, preventing the upstream movement of nonnative trout from Belt Creek.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the Carpenter-Snow Creek Mining District as a Superfund site in 2001 and water quality has improved through the cleanup activities, causing nonnative trout have begun moving into lower Carpenter Creek from Belt Creek, according to the assessment.

FWP’s assessment states that a combination of competition and hybridization from the nonnative trout in Carpenter Creek will eventually wipe out the unprotected population of native Westslope cutthroat trout.

“Protecting the population of nonhybridized WCT in Carpenter Creek would secure an invaluable component of the Belt Creek watershed’s natural heritage for future generations to enjoy. Moreover, conservation of native WCT brings a range of benefits to local communities and is required under state and federal law,” according to the assessment.

The project would construct a concrete fish barrier in Carpenter Creek to prevent the upstream movement of nonnative trout. As the mine clean-up activities continue, an additional 1.7 miles of habitat would be available in Carpenter Creek for WCT (Sih-mem Creek to barrier site) as well as 4.8 miles of tributary habitat (Snow, Lucy, Mackay, and Burg Creeks), according to FWP.

That barrier would potentially increase the number of unaltered Westslope cutthroat trout in the drainage to more than 2,500 fish, increasing their probability of long-term persistence, according to FWP.

FWP is seeking public comment on the proposal through Feb. 10. Comments should be sent to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks – Region 4, c/o Carpenter Creek Westslope Cutthroat Trout Conservation; 4600 Giant Springs Rd. Great Falls, MT 59405; or by email to fwpr4publiccom@mt.gov.

FWP is also working with NorthWestern Energy and the Upper Missouri River Breaks Audubon Society for a proposal to improve park character and wildlife habitat in Giant Springs State Park. The project would include planting approximately 700 trees in an undeveloped portion of land adjacent to Heritage Park. A temporary fence and irrigation system would be installed to help the trees develop to a mature stage.

NorthWestern approached FWP with the proposal in mid-2021 since the company’s license to operate the Missouri River hydro power projects requires them to mitigate impacts by enhancing native plants and wildlife populations and their habitats on the lands and waters associated with the projects, according to the assessment.

The project would encompass an 8-acre parcel of undeveloped land to the east of Heritage Park and will consist of planting about 700 trees.

Roughly 80 percent would be cottonwood trees with the remaining being a mix of other native trees and bushes. A temporary large-scale wildlife exclusion fence would be installed around the perimeter of the site to protect against deer grazing, according to the assessment.

The existing irrigation system would be extended to the site to provide supplemental water during the high stress months, generally June to September. Once the trees are no longer vulnerable to wildlife grazing and their roots have developed enough to survive without supplemental water, the fence and the irrigation system would be removed, according to the assessment.

FWP estimates that would take 7-10 years and after that, the area would be managed as a natural landscape, according to the assessment.

Public comment is being accepted on the proposal through 5 p.m. Feb. 3 and can be sent to Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; Attn: Alex Sholes; 4600 Giant Springs Road; Great Falls, Mt., 59405 or by email to alex.sholes@mt.gov.