Coral reefs of the West

20130404144608My friend Al Kesselheim wrote a wonderful story about wetlands for the summer issue of Montana Quarterly. In it, he says that wetlands used to be called swamps and were seen as undesirable. We spent time and money to drain the wetlands so we could farm the ground. Now we see them as habitats we should preserve, like the wetlands along Interstate 90 near Bozeman, which is home to this little frog, tons of aquatic insects and waterfowl galore. Al’s story goes on to quote Lynda Saul, wetland coordinator for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, saying that though wetlands only take up five percent of Montana’s space, they support more than half of our endangered wildlife.”That’s why I call them the coral reefs of the West,” she says.

20130404164749Put another way, “wetlands are the rainforest of the West,” adds Tom Hintz of the Montana Wetlands Legacy Partnership.. Farmers and ranchers value water just like everybody else, Hintz points out. And though the dams and ponds they put in may have stored water and prevented flooding, they didn’t provide habitat and they didn’t clean the water. Still, there’s progress. We know better now, and we’re doing better. “Everyone who drinks water has a stake in this,” he says. “Attitudes are changing. People are starting to value the benefits of landscape not simply as a resource to be mined, plowed or harvested. There are some really admirable people, from all perspectives, working on this.”


Maddy Pope, here waving to a friend by an irrigation pond at Story Mill in Bozeman, is managing the Trust For Public Land‘s Story Mill restoration project in Bozeman. In Bozeman’s early days, the area was converted from a wetlands to a farm. complete with the irrigation pond. Now TPL is turning that around, with plans to drain the pond and re-establish wetlands for area wildlife. “This is about water in our urban core,” says Pope, and brags that wildlife abounds on the property still within Bozeman city limits. Deer, mountain lions and a nesting pair of sandhill cranes are just some of the denizens.


20130403160133John Dooling manages his ranch along the headwaters of the Big Hole River near Jackson, Montana, on the western edge of the state. “I guess you’d say I’m a reactionary conservative,” he says. He doesn’t like anyone telling him how to run his ranch.

He won’t call himself an environmentalist, yet he is keenly aware of how special the land in his area is. He says he mostly leaves the land alone. He doesn’t clear willows or drain pasture. “We let Mother Nature take care of it.”

But when he was first approached about a conservation easement on his land that would help keep the Big Hole watershed healthy, he was cautious.  “Ranching is a marginal business,” he says. “You don’t take a step like that lightly.” He met with people, learned that there was a lot of common ground between ranchers and conservationists and in 2004, went ahead and committed to an easement. And it turns out, things didn’t really change much on the ranch. “When we put it into easement,” Dooling says, “they told us to just keep doing what we’ve always done.”20130403142251

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