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Flathead Valley farmers show river projects to the Society for Range Management

This summer, the International Mountain Section (IMS) of the Society for Range Management toured three land conservation and river restoration projects completed by Flathead River to Lake Initiative partners.

7-26-13 restoration tour_BrennemanSlough&DairyFarmThe Society of Range Management is dedicated to the conservation and sustainable management of rangelands for the benefit of future generations.  The International Mountain Section originated in 1950. Its members include farmers, university professors, and state and federal agency resource managers from Alberta and Montana.  The holds a summer tour and meeting in July which rotates between Alberta and Montana.

The IMS group visited a Montana Land Reliance conservation project in progress on a local dairy farm, the Foys Bend Fisheries Conservation Area managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Ken Louden’s farm that has a conservation easement held by Flathead Land Trust.

A focus of the tour was learning how riparian areas along the river are managed or restored to benefit both the river and the needs of farmers.

All conservation projects on the tour were completed by the Flathead River to Lake Initiative, a collaborative effort to conserve and restore our Flathead River and Lake natural heritage – excellent water quality, abundant fish and wildlife habitat, prime agricultural soils, and outstanding scenic and outdoor recreation values.  The group learned that over the past 10 years the Flathead River to Lake Initiative has conserved over 5,000 acres of critical lands adding to a network of 11,000 acres of protected private and public lands in the 100-year floodplain of the lower Flathead River and on the north shore of Flathead Lake.

The first stop on the tour was of a local dairy farm with a conservation project in progress with Montana Land Reliance.  The farm is located on a slough of the Flathead River with quality riparian habitat including healthy cottonwood stands.  The IMS group learned that the family decided to fence the cows out of the riparian area on this property years ago and, as a result, have great vegetated buffers between the pastures and river that serve as important fish and wildlife habitat and protect water quality.  “One of the goals of the conservation project in process is to protect the agricultural uses of the property, while balancing the needs of water and wildlife and the landowner has done a good job of this,” said Mark Schiltz, Western Director, Montana Land Reliance.

Restoration tour_LoudenFarmAnother stop on the tour was at Ken Louden’s farm along the Flathead River east of Church Slough.  In 2009, he and his extended family placed conservation easements on over 1,000 acres of farmland, wetlands, riparian habitat and floodplain.  “These conservation easements on the Louden family farms, held by the Flathead Land Trust, protect over 800 acres of rich agricultural soils for food production, as well as a habitat corridor for fish and wildlife along the river,” said Laura Katzman, Land protection Specialist, Flathead Land Trust.

The IMS group learned that with Ken’s conservation project he installed fencing along some of the river bank to allow regrowth of shrubs and trees, but that much of the area grazed did not have fenced buffers because cattle use of the riparian area was limited.  In places where erosion has occurred along the riverbank, a riparian vegetation restoration project is underway.  The project involved planting shrubs and trees in fenced exclosures that keep out the deer. Ken received funding assistance for the restoration project from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The tour also stopped at the Foys Bend Fisheries Conservation Area owned by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks  for the benefit of native bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.  The IMS group observed a recent riparian restoration project there involving cottonwood plantings fenced from deer browsing and treated with various techniques as an experiment to help gain knowledge of the best protection mechanisms against voles, pocket gophers, and competitive grasses.  “This experiment will allow us to share results with landowners along the river,” said Kris Tempel, FWP Resource Specialist who designed the experiment. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is getting funding help for the project from the Montana Department of Transportation mitigation funding.

The IMS group also learned that the riparian restoration projects on two of the properties on the tour are receiving help from an AmeriCorps member enlisted by the Flathead Lakers to pilot a new River Steward position to help landowners with restoration projects. At the Louden’s restoration project, River Steward Kirstin Gruver recruited Conservation Corps members to help partners plant trees and install fence.  Gruver has been following up with landowners to remove weeds, monitor plant growth, and assess the overall success of projects.  Constanza von der Pahlen, Flathead Lakers Critical Lands Program Director, who helped initiate the river steward position, said “these restoration projects are important for restoring healthy habitat and riparian buffers that improve water quality and reduce impacts of floods, while protecting prime farm soils for farming.”

Tanya Thrift, Supervisory Natural Resource Specialist, Bureau of Land Management, and IMS President, was excited to show these projects to IMS members.  The group was impressed by the land conservation and restoration projects and enjoyed the tour of some of the beautiful and productive farms in the Flathead Valley.

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