Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest acquires land targeted for water conservation in Big Hole system
A western rivers conservancy group has transferred 317 acres of land to the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest that includes tributaries to the Big Hole River in what advocates say is an effort to protect recreation access and conserve more water in a river system already under threat by climate change.
Western Rivers Conservancy had bought the 317-acre Clemow Cow Camp and its 2.77 cubic feet per second of water rights in August 2022 with the intent of conveying it to the national forest to protect another area of the watershed, which has seen decreasing flows and warmer water temperatures over the past couple of decades, in part due to decreasing annual snowpack levels.
It’s the second parcel of land in the area the conservancy group has transferred to the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest during the past few months. In July, the forest took over management of the Eagle Rock Ranch, a 200-acre piece of land that controls the upper water rights on the Wise River, and its 11 CFS of water rights.
Josh Kling, the conservation director for Western Rivers Conservancy, said one of the main goals in the group purchasing the two parcels was to transfer to the forest so it can better manage water in the upper tributaries of the Big Hole system.
Through a split-season approach, Kling explained, the U.S. Forest Service can utilize the water rights to irrigate the riparian meadows early in the season, creating temporary water storage, enhancing the meadows for the wildlife that live there and increasing the amount of water in the water table.
As flows drop later in the summer, the plan is to cut off the diversions to keep the water flowing into the river system for fish and downstream water users while the water held in the meadows and water table also works its way back into the river.
“It’s pretty neat because that means that you’re amplifying the water rights contribution into the streams not just by doing a simple in-stream flow, but putting it on to the adjacent riparian meadows and allowing that slow recharge back into the stream,” Kling said.
The Clemow Cow Camp is home to Cox and Old Tim creeks, which flow into Warm Springs Creek, a tributary of the Big Hole. The conservation group said the land is home to numerous birds, westslope cutthroat trout, mountain whitefish, and is prime habitat for endangered grizzly bears and Canada lynx. The Big Hole is also home to fluvial Arctic grayling.
The forest and Western Rivers Conservancy also lauded the conveyance of the land at Clemow Cow Camp as a recreation victory, since it serves as an access point to the nearly-150,000 acres West Pioneer Wilderness Study Area and also contains an old cabin he said the Forest Service plans to restore and rent out for overnight trips.
“The success of this conservation endeavor is a top-notch achievement for fish, wildlife and recreation,” Kristen Thompson, the Wisdom District Ranger for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, said in a statement. “We are incredibly proud to have partnered with WRC on this game-changing acquisition, and we are looking forward to seeing the benefits play out in the greater Big Hole Valley.”
Kling said Western Rivers Conservancy had bought the Clemow property from owners who wanted to see it conserved and that the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest was the obvious third-party to transfer both it and the Eagle Ranch property to because of the surrounding U.S. Forest Service land and the forest’s conservation plans.
“One can imagine that if we didn’t purchase the properties and sell them to the Forest Service, there might have been another buyer who maybe would want to develop houses there, or some other use that would not have been as beneficial to the wildlife habitat,” he said.
Western Rivers Conservancy worked with the U.S. Forest Service to secure a congressional appropriation through the Land and Water Conservation Fund so the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest could purchase the land, according to Kling.
The forest will be fully in charge of managing the land now that it is in its hands. Kling said Western Rivers Conservancy will check back on the projects in the Big Hole every five years to “make sure that our goals are being met.”
Thompson, the forest district ranger, did not return a message left Tuesday seeking an interview.
Numerous groups in the Big Hole basin have been working for years to protect the watershed of the 150-mile Big Hole River as winter snowpack decreases, streamflows have waned in the summer months, and groups of anglers, conservationists, ranchers and farmers work to find the best solution for the multi-faceted interests in the basin.
Earlier this summer, more than 100 people attended a roundtable in Wise River in which Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte heard from most of those interests and as the state partners with groups to try to find solutions to the water declines and mystery illness that is killing trout in record numbers in the basin.
Kling said he believes that the Forest Service’s water plans for the newly transferred land will prove beneficial to the broader efforts across the watershed.
“It enhances the habitat in those meadows and improves their forage quality. And then that water will slowly make its way through the water table and back into the stream later in the season,” he said.