Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Guest column: Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act offers a lifeline for bull trout

by Hilary Hutcheson

This spring, Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks announced that bull trout populations are declining across much of western Montana. Bull trout are a threatened species that’s native to Montana, and FWP identified reduced stream flows and rising water temperatures as key contributors to the population declines. Agency personnel have tackled countless projects to support bull trout habitat, but biologists say that we need to “look at doing more” to preserve high-quality bull trout streams in Montana.

One of the most critical things we can do to protect the future of Montana’s bull trout population is pass the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act as soon as possible. Recently re-introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act (BCSA) will protect the headwaters of the Blackfoot River, Montana’s most legendary trout stream. Bull trout need cold, clean, and connected waterways to thrive, and the BCSA would forever prevent development near tributaries like the North Fork of the Blackfoot, Monture Creek, Morrell Creek, and the West Fork Clearwater. These streams are some of the most important bull trout spawning grounds in the state, one of a shrinking number of places where wild-born bull trout thrive.

The Blackfoot’s tributaries also support a critical thermal refuge that helps fish survive low flows and warm temperatures. In the hot and dry summer of 2021, FWP closed many Montana rivers to fishing to reduce the stress on threatened trout populations. The Blackfoot was one of just a handful of rivers that stayed open to anglers, because its reliably cool waters provided a safe haven for trout to thrive while they struggled in much of the rest of the state.

Most of the cold, clear water of the Blackfoot flows from four tributaries whose futures would be guaranteed by passage of the BCSA. The North Fork, Monture Creek, Morrell Creek, and the West Fork Clearwater get their starts in the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat, and Mission Mountains Wilderness Areas, sending snowmelt tumbling down to the main stem Blackfoot between Seeley Lake and Ovando.

Beginning in the ‘70s, a combination of industrial waste and overuse rendered the Blackfoot an all-but-dead river. In the ‘90s, a concerted and expensive effort helped restore the Blackfoot and its tributaries to their previous condition, but the job has never been fully completed.

The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act will finish the job that was started decades ago. It will protect almost 80,000 acres around the Blackfoot’s major tributaries, ensuring that these streams will continue to run cold, clear, and unimpeded. And it will do so while supporting the recreational opportunities we cherish and strong communities we depend on. The BCSA takes care to secure permanent access to about 6,000 acres for snowmobiling and mountain biking around Otatsy and Spread Mountain, between Seeley Lake and Ovando. It will also enhance

Timber production and forest restoration projects in and around Seeley Lake, supporting jobs and resilient communities.

It’s this broad commitment to supporting people and outdoor resources that makes passing the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act so popular. Small business owners, ranchers, snowmobilers, loggers, anglers, mountain bikers, outfitters, and conservationists worked together to develop this proposal, and the common thread connecting these groups was the understanding about the value of protecting water, recreation, and timber harvest as some of our most precious natural resources. This is in line with 83% of Montanans who support the bill, according to a survey conducted by the University of Montana.

You don’t need to care about trout populations to support the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act (though it doesn’t hurt). All you need to do is love this place like I do and appreciate the importance of protecting our land and water; of defending our right to recreate in the places we love; of supporting clean water and outdoor resources for all of us to enjoy.

Senator Tester deserves our thanks for his continued support of the BCSA and his commitment to protecting our public lands and waters. It’s the final step towards protecting the Blackfoot today and for generations to come, and it’s time for the other members of Montana’s congressional delegation to join Senator Tester and get this bill passed, like Montanans want.