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Montana FWP reports Smith River assessment findings

The assessment helped to identify key issues with the river
Smith River.png
Posted at 5:10 PM, Jun 18, 2024

GREAT FALLS — Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks commissioned a consultant to evaluate the health of the Smith River in 2022.

The findings of the study were discussed in a meeting at the Cascade Conservation District Tuesday morning.

The assessment helped to identify key issues with the river, helping to design initial projects to demonstrate restoration actions.

The study assessed the water quality, water quantity, and aquatic habitat of the Smith River, starting from the headwaters and downstream to the Missouri River.

The assessment found increased erosion rates and a surplus of nutrients in the water like phosphorus and other sediments, which impacts aquatic life.

FWP Region 4 Fisheries Manager Jason Mullen explained, “Smith River suffers from severe low flows, so we really tried to identify any types of projects that we could do where we could enhance those low flows, provide better water for the aquatic resources, as well as the landowners and agricultural uses.”

Increased water temperatures and low flows have been identified as the main contributing factor in limiting game fish populations. Geomorphic changes over time like beaver eradication and channel relocation for infrastructure purposes has caused increased rates of erosion.

Immediate next steps for improving the health of the watershed will depend on developing effective partnerships with organizations like conservation districts and chapters of Trout Unlimited.

FWP is also looking at partnering with private landowners on projects like restoring their stream banks with natural vegetation techniques and building stock tanks to help keep livestock off the stream.

Mullen says, “When people apply to float for the Smith River, part of those fees go into this separate account that's meant to be used to improve the health of the watershed. We wanted to try and find out a way where we could do this assessment, identify and prioritize restoration projects, and really start getting those funds on the ground doing projects.”

Other projects in store for the river include restoring eroding banks at the boat camps, and reconnecting floodplains and restoring stream banks, which would help limit the amount of sediment and improve the health of the river.

FWP will begin restoration projects in 2025, but does not plan to be the lead long-term. FWP is actively working on developing partnerships, education and outreach, and gathering more information on the issues found in the study. The study is projected to be published later this year.