Habitat Restoration and Cleanup in the Clark Fork Basin

By dcronenwett May 1, 2019
Clark Fork River

Mining from a bird’s perspective

Mining has played a large role in our country’s history, particularly in the great state of Montana. Starting in the early 1860’s and continuing into the late 20th century, western Montana was one of the richest mining regions in the world. Unfortunately, decades of mining operations were taxing on the land and had severe negative impacts on our watershed. The damage done from mining activities to the Upper Clark Fork River Basin (UCFRB) created the largest superfund complex in the United States. Several settlement agreements have been completed which have allowed partners to come together to clean it up for wildlife and future generations.


Restoration efforts planned for the 120 miles of riparian (vegetation associated with rivers and water bodies) areas along the UCFRB is no small task. An estimated 11.7 million cubic yards of toxic tailings exist between Butte and Drummond – that’s a lot of truckloads! Removal of contaminants and planting vegetation to restore the floodplain channel requires rebuilding the floodplain from scratch. Toxic soil must be removed and the floodplain replanted and amended with new soil, a process which is transformative to the riparian habitat. Even though riparian areas make up just 2% of the land in Montana, an impressive 90% of Montana’s birds use riparian areas at some point throughout the year. Even more astonishing, of the ~430 bird species that occur in Montana, 60% breed in riparian areas, and 45% are exclusively found in riparian areas. Lack of suitable habitat or adverse environmental conditions in any of those locations could negatively affect bird populations. While short-term removal of vegetation can initially provide poorer conditions for birds, remediation is necessary for the long-term health of the ecosystem and the wildlife that uses it. The Clark Fork Coalition believes that the Superfund cleanup in the Deer Lodge Valley is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do world-class river and floodplain restoration. “The water quality and aquatic habitat in the river must be restored for fisheries, and the vital riparian habitat on the floodplain – Montana’s most valuable wildlife habitat type – must be restored as well,” says Will McDowell, Clark Fork Coalition Restoration Director.

The UCFRB on-the-ground restoration has been ongoing since 2014 and the University of Montana Bird Ecology Lab (UMBEL) has been studying birds in these areas affected by mining activities. Through their Bird’s-eye View Education Program, biologists at UMBEL are able to educate the public and collect data to understand how birds are responding to restoration efforts. “Because birds are such a diverse group, they utilize every part of the riparian ecosystem for food, nesting, and shelter that they need for survival or reproduction. This makes them a particularly good group of animals to use as indicators of the overall ecosystem health,” says Megan Fylling, Director of Banding and Education at UMBEL.

Remediation and restoration does not happen overnight, it can take years to return to a healthy ecosystem. Studying how wildlife is responding to restoration efforts is important in making sure that we are successfully creating healthy riparian habitat. The songbird banding work done by UMBEL for the last decade provides important monitoring data on bird communities, reproduction, survival rates, and migration patterns, just to name a few. “Initial baseline monitoring on Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch in 2007 showed that a great diversity and number of riparian bird species inhabit the Deer Lodge Valley. Post-restoration monitoring shows that many of those species are still there after Superfund cleanup, but that some remediated sites suffer a major decline in species abundance and diversity, or even a total change in bird species,” says McDowell. Continued monitoring and research in the area, however, can help us understand the complex processes that take place with a restoration project of this magnitude. And since species use different niches within a riparian habitat it can help biologists understand how these species respond to various restoration treatments. The ongoing efforts of many partners in the Clark Fork river basin, in turn, is vital to efficiently use our State’s restoration funds to inform future restoration practices for the maximum benefit to the river ecosystem.

How do we protect our investment?

Although antiquated mining practices were unregulated and very damaging to our river ecosystem, scientific studies have shed light and given us new understanding of the effects of mining. “With increased knowledge of mining impacts, we can learn from the past, do our best to fix what was done, and create a healthy ecosystem for our wildlife and our children,” said Fylling. The Bird’s-eye View Education Program not only collects scientific data on bird communities, but shares the experience with kids and adults from Butte to Missoula. Many partners help to make this a reality and without the vision of Natural Resource Damage Program, the outreach into the communities would not exist today. Bill Rossbach, lawyer and Upper Clark Fork Superfund Advisory Council Chair says, “A key component of the restoration of the Upper Clark Fork River watershed from the devastation of a century of mining and smelting is educating the public, particularly school children, about these impacts and about the work government and private entities are doing to restore our environmental heritage.


We, on the Upper Clark Fork Super Fund Citizens Advisory Council, have had the opportunity to see and enthusiastically provide funding for the great education work that is part of Clark Fork Watershed Education Program mission. We are always impressed by the exciting bird projects from the University of Montana that impact hundreds of school children every year. We now have concrete data that shows how these education programs have worked to raise consciousness about, and commitment to, our environmental heritage and ensure that future generations of leaders are dedicated to making sure that Montana continues to be truly the last best place.”


*Follow UMBEL on Facebook and check out the summer banding schedule to come out to see and learn more about birds and the science that is being conducted in western Montana. This program would not be possible without the following partners dedicated to conservation: Montana Department of Justice’s Natural Resources Damage Program, Five Valleys Land Trust, Blackfoot Challenge, MPG Ranch, Clark Fork Watershed Education Program, and Clark Fork Coalition. If you have any questions regarding the research or BEVEP program please contact Megan Fylling at megan.fylling@mso.umt.edu or Mike Krzywicki at michael.krzywicki@mso.umt.edu.