By Mike Peterson
Everyone has been asking - how do you put 10,000 wild and native fish into the Bitterroot River every year? Some states would build an expensive hatchery and stock the river every year. But when the habitat changes, or the money runs out, so do the fish. In Western Montana we are fortunate to (currently) have great habitat. Thus, the goal is to protect the wild and native fish we have.
So, let’s focus on the third largest tributary to the Bitterroot River, Lolo Creek. Draining a huge watershed from the Montana Idaho border, it flows some 40 miles along US 12 to enter the Bitterroot near Travelers Rest. It’s rich with history, having been a travel route for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The Lolo Maclay ditch has the same rich history with families settling the northern Bitterroot valley. The Maclay family were some of the successful homesteaders in this area. Since the turn of the century multiple Maclay families built successful ranch operations in the valley. This required water to grow the crops to feed the livestock. Four miles up Lolo Creek they built a diversion ditch to carry water from Lolo Creek to the agriculture fields of the Bitterroot Valley.
This area of Lolo Creek has a steep gradient; thus, the ditch was built by horse and hand. It diverts about 35 cubic feet per second (CFS) of water out of Lolo Creek ending in an area that is now Trader Brothers. The ditch provided water for crops for a hundred years, but it came with a fishy price. In late summer, when Lolo Creek runs low (under 50 CFS), the fish often follow the higher flow and pass into the ditch and out into the Hay fields. When the head gates are closed, the fish are trapped, and left to predators. This part of the Bitterroot has been long been known to be a poor fishery. For years Trout Unlimited would salvage and move fish back into the Bitterroot. There would be thousands of trapped fish, many in the 20-inch range, and many native Westslope Cutthroats.
Enter Ladd Knotec, our esteemed FWP Biologist. Ladd put 17 years looking for a solution. Not easy. It involves cooperation from about 40 water rights owners, and a diversion ditch on private land in a tight canyon that is hard to access. He thought he had it solved. Fish screen state of the art technology at that time was a rotating drum, supposedly able to remain debris free. One had been placed on another ditch in the Bitterroot with a cooperative rancher. Ladd had funding in place and the water rights owners were ready to sign off. As a last event, a representative group took a field trip to see the new fish screen. The day they arrived they met an upset rancher as the screen was clogged with debris and preventing water from entering the ditch and getting to the pivots. All of the hard and tedious work on the Lolo Maclay fish screen ended abruptly that sad day. Our hats are still off to Ladd for the incredible work he had done.
Next, enter Jed Whiteley. Trained at Cal Poly State in stream restoration, he worked in the Sonoma area on a multitude of stream rehabilitation projects. However, being a wise man, he decided Missoula was the place to be. He loaded up the car, showed up without a job, and survived with his construction skills. The Salish Kootenai (S and K Environmental) needed a stream restoration specialist in Arlee, and they decided Jed was the man for their job. So 2007 marked the start of Jed’s stream rehab career in Western Montana. In 2013 the Clark Fork Coalition hired him to work on tributaries in the Bitterroot and mid Clark Fork. There was no talk of a Lolo fish screen, even though it would put more fish in the river than any project imaginable. FWP and CCC interest was high, but local interest was nil.
This is where serendipity and a bit of “it’s a small world” enters. Nels Larson (Maclay heritage) has a big voice in the Lolo ditch water rights group and manages the Maclay ranch. The Maclay ranches have 16 CFS of the 38 CFS water rights. There are 30 other users that have 8 CFS of water rights. Nels loves Whitewater Rivers. Thus, he committed to a tough river trip in the jungle of Mexico with difficult access, tough rapids and about 3 weeks of time to complete the journey. By chance, who else is intrigued by that kind of an adventure, and signs up, but Clark Fork Coalition’s own Will McDowell. Yeah, Missoula is a very COOL place. In the deep jungles of Mexico, Will and Nels come to the mutual conclusion that a fish screen on the Lolo Maclay diversion ditch is a good idea. Technology has improved, and fisheries status have gained importance. The CCC has grown into a well-respected organization with competence in fisheries improvement. It’s a good thing that what happens in Mexico doesn’t stay in Mexico.
So, with Jed Whiteley in the lead, this complex project gets new life. First, getting the 40 water rights owners to sign off. Second, access to private land where the screen will be placed. Third, the technology to make the screen successful. Fourth, raising the $300,000 for the project. Fifth, this goes up to ten, so I think you get the idea. Westslope Chapter of TU jumped in early with $10,000 (Ladd’s request). This provided seed money to show local interest, which leverages requests for national grant funding. Man, did Jed make that work. US Fish and Wildlife granted $145,000, Future Fisheries $45,000, MWCC Montana $20,000, Clark Fork Coalition (CCC) donors $45,000. And wait for it!! The New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins Colorado $20,000 (yep the Voodoo Ranger Beer guys). The CCC really stepped up, with time, staff, money and a first time ever guarantee for 20 years of maintenance for the screen.
The bidding process began, and Jackson Construction “won” the bid. Given the weather, complexity, and access, it was not a money maker, but they paid the overtime and saw it through. Well done Jackson. The screen is 4 miles up Lolo Creek from Traveler’s rest (where Lolo Creek enters the Bitterroot). They were able to access private land to build the screen (thank you Gayland and Patti Enockson). A boom truck was placed on their land to pour concrete across Lolo Creek to build the screen. Pumps were place to de-water the area where the concrete sub base would be built. Then came hunting season.
Remember opening day of rifle season last October? Two feet of snow and subzero temps! Not great for construction. When the crews arrived, the de-watering pumps were frozen and 2 feet of ice was covering the sub base, down in that deep, dark canyon with tough access. All involved agreed it was the toughest construction project they had undertaken. Eventually, the fish screen was completed by late November 2020. The screen has a concrete base with a corrugated metal top that lets the 35 CFS of water through but not fish. The fish are diverted into Lolo Creek, making the correct choice for them to get to the Bitterroot. The bad old days of netting thousands of trapped fish out of the irrigation ditch each fall to relocate to the stream are over. If you catch any 20-inch rainbows with slightly altered dorsal fins, those are the probably the ones Mark Kuipers handled.
A big thank you to Jed Whiteley and Ladd Knotec for seeing this project to completion. Job well done to Westslope Chapter of TU and its donors for funding the project and getting it flowing. In this HOT and scorched earth year, when Lolo Creek hits flows of 50 CFS at Fort Fizzle (earlier than ever), all those fish will make it safely into the Bitterroot for the first time in a hundred years.
If you run into Ladd or Jed, make sure and say thanks, and BUY them a beer, preferably a Voodoo Ranger!