CONDON - With persistent suburban and industrial development, wetlands continue to disappear across the nation. But thanks to a relatively new program, they’re starting to come back to the Swan Valley.
After a year as conservation director for the Swan Ecosystem Center in Condon, Luke Lamar has his first wetland restoration project under his belt.
Earlier this year, Lamar reached out to the owner of the old Whelan homestead near Kraft Creek to ask if he was willing to restore the 12-acre wetland on his property. The SEC had already helped the landowner with a forestry project and he wasn’t using the open area for hay so he said yes.
The area still had some low wet spots, and Lamar knew that the water level just needed to come up a bit to restore most of the wetland. So a month ago, he brought in a contractor to build two low dams across the old ditches to keep more of the water in the field. Other than that, the area is untouched.
“This wetland still pushes a lot of water through in the spring so next year, it should be up to full pool,” Lamar said.
Because of its glacial origins, the Swan Valley contains several wetlands along its length.
SEC executive director Maria Mantas said the wetlands were originally potholes that developed around receding ice blocks. Water now drains into the low spots that are lined with silty glacial soils that don’t allow water to drain out as fast as rocky sandy soils.
Using GIS technology to measure the land area, Lamar determined that around 16 percent of the valley floor or about 20,000 acres are wetlands.
But more than a century ago, the valley’s original homesteaders were required to “prove up” their claimed section by converting it into haying or grazing land. That meant they had to either cut down much of the timber or drain the wetlands with a few ditches. The latter was much easier.
Today, 2,600 acres of Swan Valley’s wetlands are still “ditched and drained.” That’s why the SEC started its Wetland and Stream Restoration Program in 2010. The program provides technical expertise and matching funds from the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
While some think of wetlands as mere swamps, the truth is that wetlands are invaluable to our nation’s waters and wildlife.
The USFWS encourages wetland conservation and restoration because it provides habitat for a wide diversity of species. More than a third of species on the U.S. Endangered Species List live only in wetlands and almost half use them at some time during their lifecycles.
But wetlands can also serve as a geological sponge or reservoir, holding more water in a region before it’s lost downstream. That’s gaining increased importance as parts of Montana re-enter drought conditions.
Wetlands are also natural water-purification machines, because they cause particles to settle out of the water and are filled with plants that absorb and even process impurities. For example, when the Mike Horse Dam failed near Lincoln in the 1970s, thousands of tons of heavy metals were washed down to the Blackfoot River. The only thing that prevented those metals from killing more of the river was the fact that a large wetland at the mouth of Mike Horse Creek absorbed a good amount of the pollution.
Over the past five years, the SEC wetland program has restored six small wetlands on private property with the Whelan property being the seventh.
That may not sound like much, but it takes a while to get a program up and running, Mantas said. Plus landowners have to voluntarily agree to restore the wetlands, and sometimes that can be a hard sell if they’re still harvesting hay on the land, Mantas said. The landowners must provide part of the project money and agree to maintain the ditch dams.
“But the valley is turning, for good or bad, to summer residents, second homeowners or people who just love the amenities of the wildlife here and are not interested in agriculture. When they found out a meadow could be restored to a functioning wetland, they’re not losing anything,” Mantas said. “There’s been at six or more inquiries from people who are interested. They’re starting to come in the door and ask questions about it because they’re hearing more about it. So I can see in a few years, this is really going to be rolling.”