Learning the Ropes at Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch
At its headwaters in the Deer Lodge Valley, the Clark Fork River meanders alongside agricultural working land. Cattle ranches began dotting the Western Montana landscape in the mid-to-late 1800s as settlers quickly responded to a rising demand for beef from growing numbers of miners and traders in the valley, and even more families tried their hand at working the land in the early 1900s after taking advantage of federal homestead acts offering cheap land prices.
In 1908, a historic flood sent massive amounts of mine tailings downstream from the copper mines in Butte and sent a devastating influx of toxic pollution into the Clark Fork River system. Much of the mine waste was deposited in the Clark Fork floodplain between the towns of Warm Springs and Garrison — causing immense ramifications for hundreds of riverside ranches and working farms. Ranchers nicknamed barren, tailings-contaminated areas “slickens” because of their “slick” appearance.
One hundred years later, removal of the mining mess from the working agricultural lands in the Upper Clark Fork is finally underway. In all, over $300 million will be spent repairing the river. CFC is partnering with a wide range of groups to ensure a safe and thorough cleanup of legacy mining wastes, while also striving to improve the overall health of the entire system through dozens of stream restoration projects on tributary creeks and the mainstem Clark Fork River. In particular, we work extensively with the Watershed Restoration Coalition, a landowner-led group based in the Deer Lodge Valley that is committed to developing and implementing conservation, restoration and agricultural practices that will continue to improve the quality of life in the Upper Clark Fork.
Who knew? Cows and clean water can go together
The Coalition works closely with the agricultural community of the Upper Clark Fork as part-owner and the managing partner of Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch, a 2,300-acre working cattle ranch in the Deer Lodge Valley of Montana. The ranch is located east of Interstate 90 near Galen, with three miles of Clark Fork River frontage and Dry Cottonwood Creek flowing through the property. It supports 140 head of cattle, and includes a grazing lease on adjacent U.S. Forest Service land. Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch also holds a number of senior water rights from the Clark Fork River, Dry Cottonwood Creek, and Lost Creek — water that is used to irrigate 200 acres of crops, including alfalfa, wild hay and oats.
The Coalition and its partners purchased Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch in 2005 to establish a learning site in one of the most important restoration areas of the watershed. Our goal is to share information about the ongoing mine waste cleanup and demonstrate to our neighbors how the cleanup activities pose challenges and benefits to a working cow-calf operation.
We’re also exploring new stream restoration techniques at the ranch, finding ways to add water and enhance habitat on the river as well as to the feeder creeks that flow through our private property. We’ve learned a lot about ranching, restoration and cattle over this last decade, facing some tough challenges as well as exciting opportunities.
The challenge of cleanup
In 2012, Superfund cleanup began on the Upper Clark Fork, a hard-won, long-awaited project that will remove mining-related toxic sediments from the banks and floodplain of a 47-mile stretch of river between Warm Springs and Garrison. Starting in 2014, agencies and contractors turned their attention to our ranch, taking DCCR’s role of “learning site” to a whole new level.
The Upper Clark Fork Superfund cleanup is unprecedented in scope or scale. The project takes place primarily on dozens of different parcels of private land, and most of the parcels are on working cattle ranches. At DCCR, we volunteered to be first in line for the cleanup in an attempt to minimize hard knocks for others and make the process as transparent as possible for other landowners who are next up. We’ve been meeting informally with landowners in our Superfund Supper Clubs over the past several years to share ongoing plans and challenges, and are keeping an open door policy for these same neighbors and other interested groups over the next several years of cleanup.
We worked closely with the state agencies in charge of cleanup to devise a site plan and have adjusted our watering, grazing and livestock management strategies to ensure that the ranch reaches its monetary goals in spite of these large-scale cleanup activities.
The cleanup is also affording us an opportunity to have contractors undertake additional stream restoration projects on nearby creeks — learn more about our stream restoration projects in the Upper Clark Fork here.
The long reach of low flows
When creeks run dry, the resident fish and wildlife suffer. So it’s no surprise that exceptionally dry years create havoc for agricultural operators, too. Irrigation ditches can run dry by July, meaning second cuttings of hay can come up short. Low snowpack in the high country impacts late season grazing, meaning ranchers have to buy supplemental hay. Small creeks that supply water to upland stock tanks can run dry, meaning ranchers have no choice but to let the livestock drink from creeks, which contributes to degradation of streambanks and overall riparian health.
Thankfully, restoration and irrigation efficiency projects can go a long way to proactively address the problems of low flows. In 2014, CFC spearheaded an effort to switch a portion of the ranch irrigation system from a flood to a sprinkler system. Our landmark restoration endeavor took several years to fund, design and install, but now the sprinkler system returns 4 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) to the creek to aid cutthroat trout migration in the spring, and returns 9 cfs of water to the main-stem Clark Fork River to improve water quality and quantity. The system not only saves water, but is also increasing overall yields at the ranch.
The sprinkler system wasn’t our first water savings project. In July 2011, we put a two-year split-season water lease into place at Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch — a pilot project that generated income for the ranch and one we hope to replicate in future seasons. The lease meant we shut down our irrigation diversions from Dry Cottonwood Creek and the Clark Fork River during the second half of the summer, allowing 7-10 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water to return to the river.
Not only are these landmark water projects on their own, but these efforts add water to the system just where and when it’s most needed. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks categorizes 87 miles of the Upper Clark Fork as dewatered, meaning there is not enough water to keep fish alive in some or all years.
Bringing home the beef
At Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch, our ranch manager is not only trying to turn a profit in a hardscrabble industry, but are also looking to implement projects that increase irrigation efficiency, improve range and riparian health, and reduce energy costs and water use.
In particular, the Coalition actively pursues affordable ways to get grass-fed beef from DCCR to local markets. In one of our biggest successes, we recently signed on as a partner in Montana’s newest grass-fed beef collaborative, Montana Meat Co., to market and sell our grass-fed beef. In mid-August of each year, we send 10 steers from DCCR to the German Ranch in the Madison Valley, where they are finished on grass alongside steers from other Montana ranches to ensure consistency and quality of product. Montana Meat Co. then takes care of the rest of the job for us — butchering, marketing and selling the meat to consumers. In the first year of DCCR’s participation in the collaborative, we already doubled our grass-fed beef sales, saving time, money and resources in the process.