Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in Montana

Program Background in Montana
The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in Montana concentrates its efforts in Focus Areas that have significant fish and wildlife habitat.  The following pages are organized by Focus Area. Each Focus Area is described in detail and is, in effect, a strategic plan for the Partners Program in Montana.  Each Focus Area description includes sections on location, Federal trust species, conservation strategies, accomplishments and future needs.

In Montana, these eight Focus Areas are not the final chapter on the Partners Program activities in the State. New areas will undoubtably be added as habitat restoration opportunities arise and imperiled landscapes are discovered. Consequently, this program is a "work in progress."  For now, we believe the following eight landscapes are the best places for us to be working:

  1. Upper Missouri Coteau
  2. Milk River Basin
  3. East Front of the Rocky Mountains
  4. Centennial Valley
  5. Big Hole River Watershed
  6. Blackfoot River Watershed
  7. Mission Valley
  8. Kootenai River Watershed

1.  Upper Missouri Coteau Focus Area

Introduction and General Description
The Upper Missouri Coteau Focus Area is located in the extreme northeastern corner of the State.  Its boundaries are formed by the Canadian border, the State line between North Dakota and Montana, the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, and Missouri River.  The Focus Area includes Sheridan, Roosevelt, and Daniels counties.  This tri-county area was entirely glaciated and is a continuation of the Prairie Pothole Region of the Dakotas. The northern portions of the Focus Area have terrain common to the glacial Missouri Coteau, a very hilly landscape dotted with numerous shallow wetlands.

Native vegetation is of the mixedgrass prairie type. The area lies in the transition zone between the tallgrass prairie to the east and the shortgrass prairie of central Montana. Cool season grasses predominate with scattered shrub communities. Intact wetlandgrassland complexes are intermixed with intensively farmed areas throughout northeastern Montana. Many of the intact wetland-grassland tracts are privately owned.

The climate is typical of the northern Great Plains, with warm summers, cold winters, and marked variation in seasonal precipitation, which averages 12 to 15 inches per year. Temperatures can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and drop to minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit in winter.   The Focus Area includes Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge with a total of 31,660 acres of open water, marsh and upland acres and 43 Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) totaling 11,772 acres. The WPAs vary in size from 4 acres to 2,012 acres.  An additional 18,592 acres of privately owned wetlands and uplands are protected with perpetual conservation easements. 

Species of Special Concern
Habitat diversity plays a key role in supporting the Upper Missouri Coteau’s wildlife diversity. The combination of wetlands, native and tame grasslands, and agricultural fields provides habitats for various resident and migratory birds as well numerous species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. 

There are several Species of Special Concern found in the Focus Area. These include: burrowing owl, Baird’s sparrow, Sprague’s pipit, Forster’s tern, black tern, lark bunting, grasshopper sparrow, Franklin’s gull, marbled godwit, ferruginous hawk, horned grebe, and common tern. The piping plover is listed as threatened species and 85 percent of Montana’s total breeding population is found in the Upper Missouri Coteau Focus Area.

Threats within the Upper Missouri Coteau Focus Area are generally related to agriculture. Wetland drainage, prairie conversion, encroachment of non-native grass species into native prairie, invasive species, erosion, wetland sedimentation, and degraded water quality from nutrients and pesticides are all problems. Any slowdown in the livestock industry will force landowners to convert more native grassland to cropland.

Oil and gas development is another concern. Spills, leaks, saltwater contamination, and habitat loss from pipelines and roads are adversely impacting wetlands and uplands.

Conservation Strategies
Habitat work will continue to emphasize wetland creation and restoration work and grazing systems.  Portions of the Focus Area have abundant nesting cover on private lands in the form of grasslands enrolled in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program or native rangelands. These areas lack wetland habitat. Depending on topography and soil conditions, there is potential for creating shallow impoundments as well as restoring drained wetlands.  Artificial wetlands are generally constructed in drainages with very gradual slopes to provide shallow wetland habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl. In some areas, reservoir complexes have been constructed that have many of the productive characteristics of natural wetland complexes.  Establishing additional wetland habitat has been a key objective of the Northeast Montana Prairie Pothole Joint Venture Project.  The average cost for wetland restoration is $150 per acre.  Upland enhancements cost approximately $10 per acre to complete.

Over the past 12 years, approximately $3,500,000 has been spent on habitat work affecting more than 140 square miles within the Focus Area. The primary objective has been to improve waterfowl and waterbird production by improving habitat and/or protecting productive grassland-wetland complexes.  Projects developed in northeastern Montana in cooperation with over 230 landowners have laid a broad foundation for continued work on private lands.

Wetland Restoration 331 Sites 4,950 Acres
Upland Enhancement 165 Sites 49,555 Acres

Our cooperative efforts with Natural Resources Conservation Service offices have also resulted in a number of new projects. These multi-agency projects have resulted in sharing ideas and costs so as to provide a better product at less expense to the partners involved.

Future Needs

  • Approximately 15,000 acres of wetlands could be restored or established on private or tribal lands.
  • Approximately 300,000 acres of grasslands could be restored or enhanced within this Focus Area on private and tribal lands.
  • Strengthen our working relationship with the Fort Peck Tribes with a focus on the Manning Lake wetland/native prairie complex.

2.  Milk River Basin Focus Area

Introduction and General Description
In Montana, the short-grass prairie lies under the “Big Sky” and stretches from the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains eastward to the Dakotas. These vast rolling high plains grasslands are broken by isolated mountain ranges such as the Little Rocky and the Bear’s Paw Mountains and drained by large rivers, including the mighty Missouri and Milk. Another dominant feature, the Missouri Breaks (the rugged hills along the Missouri River), forms the southern boundary of the northcentral Montana plains and runs west to east along the Missouri River corridor. North of the Milk River and eastward to the State line, along what is now called the “Hi-Line”, the land has relatively high densities of depressional wetlands or “prairie potholes.”  These grassland-wetland complexes are especially important to migratory wetland birds both during the summer reproductive season and annual migrations. 

Prior to settlement, this “sea of grass” was a land of bison, pronghorn, elk, deer, grizzly bears, wolves, swift fox, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets, along with a host of grassland birds. Receiving less than 13 inches of precipitation annually, the land was once subject to raging fires and seasonal grazing by roaming herds of ungulates.  Today the land is still impacted by periodic drought and fierce blizzards.

Livestock ranching and farming now dominate the prairie, but the face of eastern Montana seems ever-changing. Many small farms and ranches are gone and the human population is declining.  Sadly, some rural communities have begun to wither and die.  Economists and civic leaders speak passionately of the need for longterm sustainability and resource stewardship in this fragile landscape.

Species of Special Concern
Many populations of grassland birds and mammals are in sharp decline. Black-tailed prairie dogs (candidate species) are much reduced, and their associated species, the black-footed ferret, is endangered. Populations of other species of northern plains grassland vertebrates, such as swift fox, mountain plover (threatened), long-billed curlew, sage grouse, burrowing owl, Sprague’s pipit, Baird’s sparrow, lark bunting, and chestnut-collared longspur are in various degrees of chronic decline. The Breeding Bird Surveys, which began in the mid-1960s, indicate The North American Breeding Bird Survey, which began in the mid-1960s, indicate consistent widespread declines of grassland birds across most of their breeding range.   Populations of at least 13 grassland bird species dropped significantly between 1966 and 1996.

Furthermore, populations of prairie nesting northern pintails (a duck) have been dropping since the mid-1950s. Prolonged drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s saw pintail breeding populations fall to 1.8 million birds, their lowest numbers ever recorded. In 1999, following 5 years of excellent water conditions the pintail population rebounded to 3 million birds, but this figure is still far below the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) objective of 5.6 million breeding birds. Researchers speculate that much of the pintails’ major prairie breeding range in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, and the Dakotas has been altered by modern agriculture.  Fortunately, many parts of Montana still have exceptionally high nest success due to extensive tracts of rangeland and grasslands enrolled in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program.  Also this Focus Area has a coyote dominated environment with relatively few red foxes, raccoons, or striped skunks (nest predators).  This geographical area with intact ponds and grasslands remains a critical recruitment area for pintail populations.

Plowing, overgrazing, fire suppression, tree encroachment, invasive exotic plants, altered predator populations, and control of black-tailed prairie dogs have all combined to make native grasslands the most extensively altered biome on the planet. In the Milk River Basin Focus Area, all of these issues present serious threats to native prairie quantity and quality. Recent conversion of native grasslands to cropland has been most severe in northcentral Montana, especially above the Milk River. The degrees of threat (from highest to lowest) of grassland conversion can be ranked geographically across the State:
1) from the Hi-Line (Milk River) and northward,
2) from the Missouri River to the Milk River,
3) between the Missouri River and the Yellowstone, and finally,
4) below the Yellowstone River.

Conservation Strategies
The Fish and Wildlife Service, especially the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, recognizes that the future of prairie wildlife populations depends, in part, on long-term land use by private landowners. The goal of this native prairie conservation initiative is to preserve and restore the grassland-wetland ecosystem in a way that sustains profitable ranching, native wildlife and vegetative diversity, and the associated ground and surface water supplies. 

As described above, the Northern Great Plains is one of the richest grassland bird communities in North America; and north-central Montana is the center of species radiation of endemic prairie birds.  The Montana Partners-In-Flight Bird Conservation Plan lists a number of declining grassland bird species needing conservation action. Many of these species inhabit north-central Montana.  Grassland-wetland complexes in north-central and northeastern Montana have been identified as critical waterfowl habitat by the NAWMP, and both areas have been designated as Prairie Pothole Joint Venture Areas. The Nature Conservancy, in their ecoregional planning document, also recognizes the grasslands and wetlands north of the Missouri River as “Ecologically Significant Areas.”  Sizable tracts of publically owned (Bureau of Land Management and State School Sections) native prairie also exist in north-central Montana. These large, intact prairie areas are the critical cornerstones for maintaining healthy prairie wildlife populations.

Montana landowners play a significant role in maintaining productive grassland-wetland landscapes and stable wildlife populations. The availability of surface water is a limiting factor for wetland wildlife and cattle.  Restoring wetlands and establishing shallow stock ponds can significantly increase duck production, provide valuable waterbird and shorebird habitat, and also benefit ranchers. Within the Milk River Basin Focus Area, the primary conservation actions on private lands are to:
1) restore and establish wetlands and wetland complexes within areas of extensive existing grassland nesting habitat, and
2) design and help ranchers implement conservation grazing systems. 

The cost to restore or establish wetlands in this Focus Area is $500 per acre and the cost for grassland enhancement is $10 per acre. 

The Milk River Basin Focus Area covers 3 and one half counties: the northeastern half of Hill County above the Milk River, and all of Blaine, Phillips, and Valley counties. There are two priority Core Areas:
1) the grasslands and wetlands (prairie pothole country) above the Milk River in north Blaine and north Phillips Counties, and
2) the grasslands below the Milk River and north of the Missouri River in southern Phillips County.

Accomplishments (1989-2000)

  • Restored 3,200 acres of wetland on 375 sites.
  • Enhanced 36,000 acres of uplands on 65 sites.

Future Needs

  • Restore and/or establish 3,000 acres of wetland on private and tribal lands.
  • Restore or enhance 250,000 acres of grasslands on private and tribal lands.

3.  East Front of the Rocky Mountains Focus Area

Introduction and General Description
The East Front of the Rocky Mountains is a spectacular and expansive landscape at the juncture of the Rocky Mountains to the western margin of the Northern Great Plains. In Montana, the East Front encompasses an area from roughly just north of Helena, Montana, angling northwest to the Canadian border. The abrupt change from rolling prairie to mountain topography produces significant elevational and climactic gradients, creating a high level of species and community diversity. The continental ice sheet reached just north of Choteau, Montana, leaving many locally abundant prairie potholes (shallow wetland basins).  Much of the local topography was affected by alpine glaciers. The exceptional habitat diversity is directly linked to the dramatic transition from high elevation alpine tundra and montane forest, to foothills and mid-grass prairie. These communities are connected by important riparian corridors.  Wetlands scattered across native grasslands add to the habitat diversity. The associated plant and animal diversity is unmatched.

The East Front’s native plant and animal populations are generally intact due to sparse settlement and an economy based principally on ranching. Economically viable ranching operations have been a key factor in maintaining the East Front’s fish and wildlife habitat.  Tourism and recreation are growing in economic importance to the area.

Species of Special Concern
The East Front is an integral part of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, one of the only remaining areas in the Continental United States with an intact assemblage of large mammalian carnivores. Grizzly bear, gray wolf, wolverine, and lynx, all considered rare or endangered in other parts of the U.S., still occur here. Rare birds found along the Front include boreal owls, ferruginous hawks, and trumpeter swans, all Species of Special Concern in Montana. Remnant populations of westslope cutthroat trout, bull trout, and harlequin ducks can still be found in the higher mountain streams. Arctic grayling (a native fish) have been eliminated from the East Front, but efforts are underway to reestablish Arctic grayling in historic streams.

Currently, there are three primary threats to the East Front. The most significant threat is habitat fragmentation caused by residential or commercial development and the conversion of native prairie to cropland.  Degraded and de-watered stream systems (very low stream flows due to water removal for other uses) are growing problems. The third major threat is noxious and invasive weeds and their ever expanding hold on the landscape. 

Conservation Strategies
The Partners For Fish and Wildlife Program in Montana is working cooperatively with private landowners along the East Front on voluntary habitat restoration and habitat protection with conservation easements. Habitat restoration efforts currently focus on wetlands, streams, riparian areas, and native uplands.  Projects have included wetland restoration, in-stream restoration, and riparian (streamside) restoration through revegetation and improved grazing management. Several conservation easements are now in place to perpetually protect wetland and prairie communities.  These easements also preserve the traditional ranching lifestyle which is another key component of this conservation strategy.  Although there have been considerable accomplishments within this Focus Area, more work remains to be done. The threats to this sensitive landscape are growing, so restoration and conservation are vitally important.  Wetland restoration averages $450 per acre in this Focus Area. Grassland enhancement costs $10 per acre. In-stream habitat restoration costs $9.50 per linear foot and riparian restoration costs $1.50 per linear foot.

Project Accomplishments to Date:

  • 117 acres of wetland restoration
  • 14 miles of riparian restoration
  • 6.3 miles of in-stream restoration
  • 5 irrigation diversion improvements
  • 15 ranches were assisted with grazing management improvements, such as off-stream stock water developments, water gaps, cross-fencing, and/or riparian fencing
  • Collaborated on stream restoration and water management workshops and tours

Future Needs

  • Restore 500 miles of in-stream and riparian habitat.
  • Restore 3,500 acres of wetland.
  • Restore or enhance 500,000 acres of grasslands.
  • Continue to pursue efforts to control noxious and exotic plants.
  • Focus fisheries restoration efforts on native species.
  • Collaborate with partners on educational workshops.
  • Continue to participate in watershed-level planning and restoration efforts.

4.  Centennial Valley Focus Area

Introduction and General Description
The Centennial Valley is a large, high elevation, undeveloped watershed in Beaverhead and Madison Counties. The Centennial Valley encompasses approximately 385,000 acres north and east of the Continental Divide along the Montana-Idaho border. The Centennial Mountains flank the south side of the valley, and the rolling foothills of Gravelly Mountain range extend to the north. The Red Rock River meanders through the broad and flat valley floor feeding Upper and Lower Red Rock Lakes. The valley contains the largest wetland complex in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem comprising thousands of acres in a mosaic of open water and emergent vegetation. The uplands on the valley floor are characterized by lowlands dominated by sagebrush, grasslands, and lush willow dominated riparian areas. The Montana Natural Heritage Program has rated the Centennial Valley as one of the most significant natural landscapes in Montana, a tribute to its intact ecological systems, expansive wetlands, diverse native fauna and flora, and unique concentrations of rare species.

In the heart of the valley is the 45,000-acre Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge was established in 1935, primarily to protect trumpeter swans and wildlife habitat. The refuge provides core habitat for trumpeter swans; however, many of the swans nest and rear young on private land in the valley.  Landownership in the Centennial Valley is predominately public lands with 285,000 acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Montana Department of Natural Resource Conservation. The remaining 100,000 acres, located within the river valley, are privately owned.  Approximately 90 percent of these lands is controlled by 15 ranches.

Species of Special Concern
There are 261 bird species, approximately 70 percent of those found in Montana, inhabit the valley. At least 150 bird species breed in the valley. The valley has been the base for trumpeter swan recovery efforts in the northern Rockies since a remnant population was discovered here in the early 1900s. The Centennial Valley hosts the densest breeding population of peregrine falcons, ferruginous hawks, and trumpeter swans in Montana. The valley historically had a large population of sage grouse and still maintains remnant populations. Red Rock Creek and Upper Red Rock Lake contain one of the only native lake populations of Arctic grayling (a native fish) in the lower 48 States.  Several streams in the valley contain genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout. The stream habitat of the valley also provides habitat for river otters. Lying only 20 miles from Yellowstone National Park, the Centennial Valley is a linkage zone and provides secure habitat for wide ranging native predators such as grizzly bear, wolf, wolverine, and lynx.

The Centennial Valley’s soils support a diverse array of plants and plant communities, including some of considerable scientific importance. Location records indicate 41 plant Species of Special Concern, including five that may be globally rare and seven that are known only from the Centennial Valley in Montana. Vegetation in the Centennial Sandhills represents one of Montana’s most intact native plant associations and includes at least five State-rare species.

The biggest threat to the Centennial Valley is habitat fragmentation from construction of housing subdivisions. While the valley is still relatively intact, outside pressures to chop up the valley into “ranchettes” threaten crucial fish and wildlife habitat.  Additional long-term impacts to habitat in the valley include: overgrazing, brush control, poorly designed irrigation systems, undersized culvert crossings, channelized streams, and improper mining operations.

Conservation Strategies
The goal of the Partners Program in the Centennial Valley is to work cooperatively with private landowners and other agencies and conservation groups to restore and preserve unique fish and wildlife habitat on private lands.  The Program got started in the Centennial Valley in 1994, at the request of then Director Mollie Beattie. The Partners Program gives special emphasis to those properties and projects that provide habitat connections on private lands to Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management properties. Projects include: in-stream restoration, riparian restoration, wetland restoration, grazing management, off-site water development, and native grass reseeding.

The costs associated with these restorations are:

  • Wetland restoration - $500/acre
  • Grassland enhancement - $10/acre
  • In-stream Restoration - $9.50/linear foot
  • Riparian Restoration - $1.50/linear foot

Noxious weeds (e.g., spotted knapweed, houndstongue, and henbane) are rare in most of the valley; however, they are beginning to appear throughout the region. A weed district was started in 1998, and intensive control efforts were started in 1999.

Current tools being used include educational, mechanical, biological, and chemical controls. Unless better control methods become available, noxious weeds will require diligence from all land managers and resource users long into the future.

Habitat Restoration Accomplishments to Date:

  • Wetland Restoration 130 Acres
  • Grazing Management Implemented 3,300 Acres
  • Stream/Riparian Restoration 8 Miles

Habitat restoration projects have been funded by Partners for Fish and Wildlife ($100,000); Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Arctic Grayling Recovery Program, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Bureau of Land Management, The Nature Conservancy, and private landowners ($125,000). 

Future Needs

  • Restore 2,000 acres of wetlands in this Focus Area on private lands.
  • Restore or enhance 75,000 acres of grasslands.
  • Restore 175 miles of in-stream and riparian habitat.

5.  Big Hole River Watershed Focus Area

Introduction and General Description
The Big Hole Valley is the highest and widest mountain valley of southwestern Montana with much of the valley floor above 6,000 feet elevation. The Big Hole River flows from the Beaverhead Mountains of the Bitterroot Range and winds for nearly 130 miles through a broad 1.8 million-acre valley. The Big Hole River is a world renown trout fishery and is one of only a few free flowing rivers left in the West.

Landownership in the Big Hole Watershed is 70 percent public and 30 percent private. The public lands are primarily located in the foothills and mountains, and managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The valley bottom is mostly privately owned by large cattle ranches and is managed mostly for hay production and livestock grazing. The valley is sparsely populated with about 900 residents; however, development pressures are increasing steadily.

Species of Special Concern
On August 22, 1805, Lewis and Clark first noted Arctic grayling in the Beaverhead River south of present day Dillon, Montana. At the time, Arctic grayling occurred in the Missouri River drainage upstream of present Great Falls, Montana. Sadly, by 1950, the Big Hole River contained the last remaining population of river dwelling Arctic grayling in the lower 48 States (8 percent of former Montana range). Reasons for decline within the Missouri River system include: habitat degradation, over fishing, drought, and competition from non-native fish. Arctic grayling tend to live in river systems where large annual migrations can occur. Fur trappers in the early 1800s told of a Big Hole Valley with thousands of acres covered with riparian (streamside) shrubs and beaver dams. This large scrub-shrub riparian area has changed considerable over the last century, but it is still home to such species as Canada lynx, wolverine, river otter, northern goshawk, westslope cutthroat trout, gray wolf, peregrine falcon, bald eagle, and Ute-Ladies’ tresses.

This population of Arctic grayling is severely impacted by low flows and high temperatures in the Big Hole River in late summer.  On August 29,1994, flows in the Big Hole River near Wisdom, Montana, measured 1.9 cubic feet per second (Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has determined that 20 cfs is necessary for minimum living conditions). At the same time, flow measurements taken in irrigation ditches above this site measured 22 cfs. Ranchers divert water from the Big Hole River through mid-July annually for irrigation purposes and after July 15th, water is diverted mainly for livestock watering. This water removal from the Big Hole River is believed to be impacting the Arctic grayling and many other fish and wildlife species.

One of the other major threats to the valley is habitat fragmentation from subdivision development.  Other long-term impacts to fish and wildlife habitat in the Big Hole Focus Area include removal of woody, riparian (streamside) vegetation, poor grazing management and timber harvest practices, improperly designed irrigation structures, noxious weed encroachment, and mining operations.

Conservation Strategies
In 1988, the Arctic Grayling Recovery Program was formed in an attempt to preserve the Big Hole River Population as well as restore at least five other grayling populations. This workgroup is made up of individuals from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Trout Unlimited and private citizens. The Recovery Program believes that in order to be successful, restoration efforts must include identification of habitat needs of Arctic grayling, grayling habitat protection and restoration, cooperation of private landowners in restoration and management efforts, research into the nature of competition between Arctic grayling and non-native trout and the role of habitat degradation in this relationship, and experimental introductions within the historic range of this fish. The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program signed a cooperative agreement with the Arctic Grayling Recovery Program to provide funding and technical assistance for Arctic grayling recovery in the upper Missouri River Drainage.

The Big Hole Watershed Committee was formed in 1995 to develop understanding and agreement among individuals and groups with diverse viewpoints on water use and management in the Big Hole River Watershed. The group is composed of local ranchers, sportsmen, outfitters, and local, State, and Federal agency representatives. A Partners Program representative is a technical advisor on the committee.  The Committee has worked or is working a drought management plan, land use plan, noxious weed control, and river recreation management plan.

The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program has focused most of its efforts in the Big Hole Watershed on installing livestock water wells to replace inefficient irrigation ditches (wells use 99.5 percent less water). These wells allow ranchers to shut off irrigation diversions during critical late summer low flow periods. Critical flows are enhanced by these projects in the middle 5 miles of the Big Hole, as well as benefitting the whole lower river. In addition to drilling wells, the Partners Program has completed several other projects involving riparian restoration, instream restoration, and grazing management. The costs associated with these conservation strategies are:

  • Wetland Restoration - $500/acre
  • Upland/Grassland Enhancement - $10/acres
  • In-stream Restoration - $9.50/linear foot
  • Riparian Restoration - $1.50/linear foot


  • 14 livestock water wells have been developed
  • 5 miles of riparian habitat has been restored
  • 1 mile of in-stream habitat has been restored
  • 65 miles of in-stream flows have been enhanced.

Future Needs

  • Restore 10,000 acres of wetlands in this Focus Area.
  • Restore or enhance 400,000 of grasslands.
  • Restore 750 miles of in-stream or riparian habitats.

6.  Blackfoot River Watershed Focus Area

Introduction and General Description
Atop the Continental Divide at Roger’s Pass is the headwaters of the Blackfoot River which flows 132 miles westerly to its confluence with the Clark Fork River near Missoula. The Blackfoot River Watershed totals about 1.5 million acres and is nestled between the Continental Divide, Bob Marshall/Scapegoat Wilderness Areas, and Garnet Mountains. Landownership in the watershed is 49 percent Federal, 5 percent State of Montana, 20 percent Plum Creek Timber Company, and 24 percent private. In general, public lands and significant portions of Plum Creek Timber Company land comprise the forested, mountain areas while private lands are located in the foothills and lower valley floor.  The Blackfoot Valley was shaped by glacial ice and a large glacial lake in the latter part of the Pleistocene Era.

Geologic, hydrologic, and geographic features combine to produce a wide array of plant and animal communities within the Blackfoot Watershed. The main source of this diversity is the wetland features associated with glacial lakes and ponds, bogs and fens, basin fed creeks and spring creeks, scrub/shrub riparian areas, and cottonwood forests. The rolling, glacially-formed landscape also provides the template for a rich assemblage of upland communities that includes grasslands, sagebrush steppe, aspen groves, and pine forests.  Unlike most other major valleys in western Montana, the Blackfoot Valley is relatively undeveloped.  The valley has seen limited residential subdivision development, and ranching remains the principle agricultural use.

Species of Special Concern
The Blackfoot River Watershed is a world renown native trout fishery, supporting increasing numbers of bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. The valley is part of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem which supports the largest population of grizzly bears in the lower 48 States. Grizzly bears, gray wolf, wolverine, and lynx are year-round residents. The native grassland/shrub communities provide habitat for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, one of only two remaining populations in Montana. The prairie pothole and riparian habitats are home to over 200 species of migratory birds including black terns, greater sandhill cranes, and long-billed curlews. Over 600 species of vascular plants occur in the watershed with nearly 30 percent found in the glaciated wetlands.  Six rare or uncommon plant communities occur in the Blackfoot Valley, including the three-tip sagebrush/rough fescue plant association found nowhere else in the world.

The primary threat to the Blackfoot Watershed is habitat fragmentation. Residential development, poor logging practices, invasive species encroachment, fire suppression, and improper grazing management have all combined to adversely affect fish and wildlife habitat. Other long-term threats include:  de-watered streams, poorly designed irrigation structures,  wetland drainage, expanding croplands in native grasslands, mining, and road construction.

Conservation Strategies
For 10 years, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program has been an active participant in an innovative watershed group called the Blackfoot Challenge. This group is a proactive, “grass roots” organization which coordinates resource management in the Blackfoot River Watershed.  The Challenge’s mission is to coordinate efforts that will enhance, conserve, and protect the natural resources and rural lifestyle of the Blackfoot River Valley for present and future generations.

The Challenge uses small committees to deal with issues such as habitat restoration, landscape protection, noxious weed management, drought management, education, and recreation. Habitat projects have focused on the restoration of drained wetlands, tributary streams, and riparian areas. Other projects include: re-seeding cropland to native grasses, livestock grazing management, fish passage barrier removal, in-stream flow enhancement, and noxious weed management.

The Partners Program is also very active with two other watershed groups in the Blackfoot. They include the North Powell Conservation District and the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited. The North Powell Conservation District has focused its efforts on water quality issues associated with the Nevada Creek Watershed, a principle tributary to the Blackfoot River. The Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited has been working on restoring the Blackfoot River, its tributaries, and adjacent lands to benefit native bull and westslope cutthroat trout.

Wetland restoration costs in this Focus Area average $500 per acre. Upland enhancements cost $10 per acre. In-stream restorations average $9.50 per linear foot and riparian restoration costs $1.50 per linear foot.


  • Fish barriers have been removed to allow unrestricted fish movement in over 350 miles of stream.
  • 35 miles of in-stream restoration.
  • 57 miles of riparian restoration.
  • 2,100 acres of wetlands restored.
  • 2,300 acres of native grasslands restored.
  • 40,000 acres of grazing management improvements.
  • 18 in-stream water conservation projects.
  • 14 self-cleaning fish screens installed on irrigation ditches.
  • Numerous livestock feedlots have been removed from streams.

Future Needs

  • Restore 1,500 acres of wetlands on private lands in this Focus Area.
  • Enhance or restore 200,000 acres of grasslands.
  • Restore 750 miles of in-stream and/or riparian habitat.

7.  Mission Valley Focus Area

Introduction and General Description
The Mission Valley, a glacially carved remnant of 12,000 years past, is located in Lake County of western Montana. The 350,000-acre valley is also within the exterior boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The northern end of the valley is bordered by Flathead Lake with the main stem of the Flathead River to the west. The National Bison Range National Wildlife Refuge forms the southern boundary, and the majestic Mission Mountains tower above the valley’s eastern edge. Ownership is a checkerboard of private land, Tribal trust parcels, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wildlife Management Areas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service waterfowl production areas, and national wildlife refuges.

Species of Special Concern
Habitat types are diverse and varied with a mosaic of forests, glacial fed streams and rivers, spring creeks, riparian areas, glacial potholes, and small remnants of native Palouse prairie.  This natural diversity, along with irrigated pastures and small crop fields, makes the Mission Valley an oasis for a unique array of fish and wildlife. Not only does the valley support some of the highest densities of ground nesting migratory birds in the lower 48 States, it is also home to a number of threatened and endangered species. These include bull trout, peregrine falcon, gray wolf, and bald eagles. Grizzly bears are also becoming regular visitors to the valley floor. Grizzlies have always inhabited the surrounding mountain ranges but were rarely seen in the lowlands.

Today, it is commonplace for bears to venture into the valley. Some theories for this behavior include:

  1. plentiful vole populations (a seasonal food source)
  2. poor berry production in the mountains
  3. changing social structure within the bear populations
  4. movement by juveniles into new territories

For whatever reason, the Mission Valley has become important grizzly bear habitat.

Habitat fragmentation and habitat degradation are the two biggest threats to the Mission Valley.  Spring creeks and streams have been overgrazed, channelized, diverted, and dewatered. Wetlands have been drained and filled. Upland areas are often overgrazed, and invasive species are expanding rapidly. But these problems pale in comparison to the habitat fragmentation caused by subdivision development. Like many western Montana valleys, Mission Valley’s landscape is being carved into 20- and 40-acre subdivisions. Unfortunately, land subdivision and associated buildings and fences fragment the habitat.

Conservation Strategies
The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program began working in the Mission Valley in 1990. To a great extent, past Partners Program efforts have focused on wetland restoration. Over time, our restoration emphasis expanded to all habitat types including streams and riparian (streamside) corridors. The stream restoration are providing critical habitat for native and wild salmonids (trout and salmon). Restoring and enhancing riparian corridors improves habitat connectivity for bears and migratory birds.  Working cooperatively with private landowners to restore habitat will continue to be a key component of our conservation efforts in the Mission Valley.

We are also working with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe within the Clarke Fork Watershed and helping them with their efforts to restore the Jocko River.  The costs for habitat restoration in this Focus Area are:

  • Wetland Restoration - $600/acre
  • Upland Restoration - $10/acre
  • In-stream Restoration - $9.50/linear foot
  • Riparian Restoration - $1.50/linear foot

Since its inception in 1990, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, along with a variety of diverse partners, has been successful in completing numerous habitat restoration projects.

  • 910 acres of wetland restoration on 370 sites.
  • 52 miles of stream restoration on 34 sites.
  • 1,450 acres of upland enhancement on 19 sites.

Future Needs

  • Restore 4,000 acres of wetlands on private and tribal lands within this Focus Area.
  • Enhance or restore 50,000 acres of grasslands.
  • Restore 175 miles of in-stream or riparian habitat.

8.  Kootenai River Watershed Focus Area

Introduction and General Description
The Kootanai River Watershed is an international watershed encompassing approximately 18,000 square miles of British Columbia and Alberta Canada, 7,500 square miles in northwest Montana, and a small portion in northern Idaho. The Kootenai River originates in British Columbia’s Kootenay National Park. It flows 485 miles through steep canyon terrain and agricultural flat land in Montana and Idaho, and eventually returns to Canada and Kootenay Lake. 

The Upper Kootenai Drainage, upstream of Libby Dam and extending into British Columbia, is a focus area for the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. The Kootenai National Forest covers 76 percent of the Upper Kootenai, Burlington Northern and Plum Creek Timber Company own 14 percent, with the remaining 10 percent in private ownership. About 90 percent of the Upper Kootenai watershed consists of native coniferous forest, and 10 percent of the basin is agricultural land used primarily for pasture and forage production.

The Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa contain important populations of native bull trout that migrate over the international border between Canada and Montana. The Upper Kootenai River is recognized as the most important of the 12 restoration/conservation areas for bull trout in Montana requiring restoration planning efforts under the Federal recovery program for the threatened bull trout.

Species of Special Concern
The Tobacco River Watershed, a primary tributary to the Kootenai River, provides some of the most important spawning and rearing habitat for bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout in the lower 48 States. Grave Creek, a tributary to the Tobacco River, has been identified as the most important spawning tributary in the United States portion of the Upper Kootenai. The Kootenai River watershed also supports populations of redband rainbow trout, kokanee salmon, and white sturgeon. Other wildlife Species of Special Concern include: grizzly bear, gray wolf, Canada lynx, wolverine, fisher, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, Columbian sharptailed grouse, and over 190 species of migratory birds.

Over 90 percent of the Tobacco River Watershed and most of the lower portion of Grave Creek are privately owned. Presently, land development is clustered; however, rapid population influx is resulting in increased residential development and recreational subdivision. Associated activities such as recreation, timber harvest, improper grazing practices, fish passage barriers, de-watered streams, and artificial pond construction increase the threat to native salmonids (salmon and trout).

Conservation Strategies
In 1998, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program began working in the Upper Kootenai River Watershed. We designated the Tobacco River Valley as a Partners for Fish and Wildlife Core Area. Other organizations and agencies were also collaborating on natural resource problems in the watershed. Many of these organizations were linked together through their membership in the Kootenai River Network. In 1999, Partners for Fish and Wildlife further acknowledged the value of the Network by entering into a formal cooperative agreement.  This cooperative approach has led to improved resource management practices and the restoration of aquatic resources and improved water quality within the watershed.  The Grave Creek watershed restoration project is a good example of this collaborative effort. A log-crib dam was built in Grave Creek in 1993 to provide irrigation water for the Glen Lake Irrigation District and drinking water for the town of Eureka. 

The dam is a major barrier to upstream migrating bull trout. The Partners Program, in cooperation with the Glen Lake Irrigation District, Forest Service, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, worked out an agreement to remove the log dam and replace it with a series of rock weir structures. The new rock weirs will improve fish passage, transport bedload, and divert water for irrigation. In addition, a self-cleaning fish screen was installed to prevent downstream migrating fish from entering the ditch system. This project has inspired several landowners to form a group called Friends of Grave Creek. The Friends of Grave Creek want to restore the lower reach of Grave Creek to a naturally functioning stream and improve habitat for native fish.

Additional Partners Program projects planned for the Upper Kootenai include: stream restoration, improved grazing management strategies and riparian habitat restoration projects. The costs for habitat restoration in this Focus Area are:

  • Wetland Restoration - $650/acre
  • Upland Enhancement - $10/acre
  • In-stream Restoration - $9.50 /linear foot
  • Riparian Restoration - $1.50/linear foot


  • Restored 3.6 miles of stream and riparian habitat at 6 sites.
  • Restored 14 miles of stream for fish passage.

Future Needs

  • Restore 4,000 acres of wetlands on private lands within this Focus Area.
  • Enhance or restore 100,000 acres of grasslands.
  • Restore 350 miles of in-stream and/or riparian habitat.

Contact Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in Montana

Jim Stutzman
922 Bootlegger Trail
Great Falls, Montana  59404
Phone: 406 727-7400 ext. 24
Fax: 406 727-7432


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