Plunging west from the foot of the Mission Mountains to its confluence with the Flathead River, the Jocko River on the Flathead Reservation covers an approximately 40-mile stretch of archetypal Montana river beauty.
Although the river is in fairly good health these days, it faces many of the same challenges found elsewhere in the Clark Fork watershed, as resource managers vigilantly strive to balance the Jocko’s uses between agriculture and maintaining healthy fisheries and riparian habitat.
On July 9, staff and board members from the Clark Fork Coalition ventured north to see firsthand how the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have worked to restore the Jocko over the past decade and “compare notes” with fellow stewards of a thriving waterway in the Clark Fork Basin.
“We took a top-down approach,” said CSKT fisheries program manager Les Evarts. “Almost every one of our restoration projects have been in a downstream manner.”
As Evarts went on to explain, those projects have included removing cows and imposing development restrictions in the Jocko’s headwaters, thereby ensuring that sedimentation doesn’t interfere with downstream restoration.
Those efforts have been complemented by enhanced connectivity of waterways, restored sinuosity where the main river channel had been artificially straightened, and an impressive amount of habitat protection within the floodplain. Now, Evarts proudly reported that native westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout are able to spawn in the Jocko’s three headwater tributaries that not long ago were choked by sediment from legacy logging or inaccessible due to irrigators sucking the Upper Jocko dry.
Native fish species are further aided by traps and screens placed along the way to their spawning sites. Evarts said that traps are stationed at the ends of natural rock channels, where managers are able to oversee the “selective passage” of native species. The screening method was showcased during a mid-day pit stop at a fish screen along an irrigation ditch. The simple, self-cleaning contraption used a water wheel to brush itself free of debris while allowing water destined for irrigation to pass through the screen. Meanwhile, fish were denied passage, eventually being diverted back to the main riverbed.
And fish aren’t the only living things enjoying a comeback along the Jocko. Native vegetation has been widely replanted in the floodplain, with CSKT officials enlisting the help of tribal elders by asking what plants they remembered historically populating the area, and what they would like to see reintroduced.
Seemingly all elements of the day’s discussion were on display at the final stop of the field trip, on a hillside overlooking a stretch of wetlands flanking Mission Creek, a tributary that enters the Flathead River near Dixon, just north of the Jocko’s mouth. Here, narratives involving ranching, native plants and trout all converged in an impressive stream restoration success story.
“Pretty aggressive farming and ranching techniques had denuded a lot of the vegetation,” Rusty Sydnor, a wetland restoration specialist, said of the land acquired by the Tribes in 2006. “The entire ecology of the floodplain had been altered.”
Since its acquisition, a major step in the stream’s rehabilitation was reestablishing the meandering creek bed by connecting oxbows that had been cut off by poorly managed livestock. By creating more depositional features, cottonwoods and other vegetation have since been able to reclaim riparian toeholds.
Sediment coming into Mission Creek from the Moiese Wasteway upstream presented another challenge, often clouding the creek all the way down to the Flathead. CSKT managers responded by developing wetland cells to serve as settling ponds and lining the creek with native riparian plant species to filter out impurities, leading to remarkable improvement in water quality. Where the creek once resembled “chocolate milk”, Sydnor says it’s now crystal clear and serves as an important thermal refuge for trout during summer months.
Of course, rehabilitation of Mission Creek and the Jocko has not come cheap. More than $18 million has been committed to various projects along the Jocko from ARCO alone, with other substantial investment coming from the BLM, revenue from Kerr Dam and other sources.
The Tribes, however, insist that the investment is worth every penny, touting the theme of “reciprocity” and the importance of giving back to the river.
“It’s a whole different way of looking at our relationship with the natural world,” explained Germaine White, CSKT education specialist and a Clark Fork Coalition board member.
“When we get something [from the river], we need to give back something of equal or greater value.”
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