What do warblers, cottonwoods, Flathead Lakers members, and anglers have in common? Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wildlife biologist Gael Bissell pointed out several things, but the most important is that they are all part of the many connections that make up a healthy river system.
Bissell presented the keynote address at the Flathead Lakers 2012 annual meeting on July 26. The Flathead Lakers is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting clean water in Flathead Lake and its watershed.
She emphasized that protecting the Flathead River’s riparian zone, or the area along the river that is influenced by the river, is key to protecting clean water in the river and downstream in Flathead Lake. It sustains habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife and provides recreation opportunities that both residents and visitors enjoy. Riparian vegetation filters pollutants from support runoff before it reaches the river and lake and absorbs flood waters. All of these services benefit the local economy.
When the river moves it creates substrate where cottonwoods can grow, gravel bars and fish habitat. Its meanders, islands, backwater channels, and connected shallow groundwater and wetlands are all part of the free water purification system that keeps Flathead Lake clean and supports an amazing diversity of wildlife.
The Flathead Lake and river system is a worldwide treasure, said Bissell. The Flathead Lakers initiated a collaborative effort by agencies, conservation groups, and landowners that is working to protect this treasure. “You are what is between the lake and the rest of the world,” she said about the role the Flathead Lakers and its partners play in protecting these important resources that make the Flathead unique.
She explained how the Flathead Lakers brought a group together a decade ago to review the scientific information, develop maps, and then embark on a plan to “protect the best and conserve the rest.” By protecting wetlands and the best riparian habitat, she said, you will protect Flathead Lake.
She commented that initially she thought the 2002 Critical Lands Report “would be shelf art” rather than a plan for action. But the tenacity of the Flathead Lakers staff and some early conservation success got 20 groups working together and got what is now called the River to Lake Initiative off the ground.
That led to success in raising money for conservation and restoration projects from federal, state and foundation grants and generous donations of land value by landowners working on conservation projects.
Since 2003, over 5,000 acres along the river corridor and at Flathead Lake’s north shore, including 1,600 wetland acres, have been protected, Bissell reported. And over 3 1/2 miles of river banks have been restored. The result is that about 30 percent of the mainstem Flathead River channel has been protected and will continue to sustain the Flathead’s natural heritage of clean water, healthy habitat, fish, birds, and other wildlife, prime farm lands, recreation opportunities, and scenic beauty.