Stream and Riparian Restoration

The Big Picture

Stretching like fingers into the prairie, prairie streams once supported a diverse array of plants and wildlife, including nearly half of all prairie birds. However, over the last century, much of this habitat and its diversity has been lost. Fortunately, American Prairie Reserve (APR) holds several intact riparian sites that harbor impressive biodiversity. These sites provide both a glimpse of the flora and fauna that a restored habitat can support and the raw materials with which to renew degraded sections.

American Prairie Reserve’s long-term goal for the restoration of streams and riparian habitats (which comprise all areas along natural watercourses) is to facilitate highly functional prairie stream systems that support the highest possible variety of native fish, amphibian and bird species, as well as native vegetation. Restored natural hydrology also creates and maintains pools, which are critical to these efforts.

Our efforts focus on the restoration of in-stream flows, a multi-story riparian corridor (where conditions allow) and a full assemblage of native prairie fish. Our main objective is to restore the ecological processes of these areas to their original state, which will create the conditions for the long-term establishment and maintenance of riparian plants and will provide habitat for fish, amphibians and the aquatic invertebrates that they rely upon.  We will remove blockages to fish passage allowing fish to repopulate greater watershed areas and possibly reintroduce native fish species.

Project to Date

APR, working with World Wildlife Fund (WWF), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and stream specialists, has initiated several important restoration projects.  We have inventoried and characterized riparian habitats on American Prairie Reserve that will provide the basis for re-vegetation efforts. Additionally, we have conducted vegetation restoration trials to understand how to manage restoration efforts on a larger scale, and we have documented the ecological importance of beaver in prairie streams. We have also surveyed fish populations on the three major creeks on APR, providing a baseline for future restoration efforts.

In April 2007, APR, working with WWF, Oxbow Inc. and Hoitsma Ecological, restored a half-mile segment of Box Elder Creek that had been farmed into an alfalfa field some 70 years ago.  The restoration project involved digging a new channel with a tractor and was supported by a Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) crew who installed 1,500 plants next to the channel. The project was funded by a grant obtained from Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Future Fisheries Fund.

The new channel reconnects Box Elder’s 27-square mile watershed to Telegraph Creek, allowing fish to repopulate the watershed as hydrologic conditions allow. The MCC crew installed 10 species of native riparian trees and shrubs in three different plots along the new channel, including some species we had not yet tried in our vegetative restoration trials (buffaloberry, hawthorne, currant, green ash, sand cherry and snowberry) as well as others we had tried during the trials (yellow willow, plains cottonwood, rose and chokecherry). To improve plant survival rates, all plants were irrigated and protected with a weed mat. Finally, we fenced all three plots to protect the plants from browse by deer, elk and bison. We will be monitoring how the channel adjusts as it naturalizes with flows as well as how the plants survive.

In the summer of 2007, WWF restored natural flows on all three major creeks of APR by opening up in-stream dams.  By modifying these structures, WWF researchers not only restored flows to the three creeks, but also removed major fish barriers, allowed for natural transportation of sediment, re-established natural processes of erosion and deposition and increased the number of establishment sites for riparian vegetation. Monitoring conducted by WWF scientists in 2008 documented fish accessing areas where they had not been in 2006, and had likely not existed for 60 years.  Fish numbers have steadily increased since 2006.

Next Steps

As our restoration activities occur, we will continue monitoring stream hydrology and measuring stream flows and precipitation events to improve our understanding of local water systems and to inform future management decisions. Upcoming projects include monitoring bison utilization and impacts on riparian areas and evaluating opportunities for native fish restoration.  We are also evaluating possible reconnection of oxbows cut off for farming purposes and other stream restoration activities.