Mt. Haggin WMA – A Gem with Flaws

Mt. Haggin WMA – magnificent mountain country

With hunting seasons mostly over and with a gentle snowfall laying down more winter snowpack, the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited offered the first of its winter programs, last week, to a large audience.

The theme was the Mt. Haggin Wildlife Management Area, a popular outdoor recreation area, with cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, as well as hunting, fishing, and other recreation, with areas on both sides of the Continental Divide.

Mt. Haggin WMA in autumn

Vanna Boccadori, a wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, told of the area’s history, starting with a chert quarry where Native Americans found rock suitable for making arrow and spear heads and cutting tools, and likely found excellent hunting in the area.

Starting in the 1860s, things changed, when gold was discovered in French Gulch, with sluice and placer mining that began a long series of environmental problems in the area.

Logging started in the 1880s, with large scale clear-cutting of timber, much of which was transported on a flume, with timber ending up in Butte mines and homes, and the new settlement in Anaconda. A second wave of logging started in 1906.

Much of the area was included in the beginnings of the National Forest system. Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the Forest Service, visited the area, finding that there was no forest left. He made a deal with the Anaconda Company, trading the area for Company forest holdings in the Bitterroot valley.

The Anaconda Company bought out a number of homesteads and started a sheep ranching operation that, under subsequent private owners, phased into cattle ranching. There was another wave of logging in the 1970s. With the help of the Nature Conservancy, the Forest Service and FWP then acquired the property, creating the 55,000 acre Mt. Haggin Wildlife Management Area. It has since grown to 70,000 acres.

Pedro Marques, environmental restoration manager

Pedro Marques is a Restorations Program Manager for the Big Hole Watershed Committee, and has been working on many degraded areas on the WMA, including smelting deposits, such as arsenic, sulphur dioxide, copper, antimony, lead, and cadmium. There was also environmental damage from logging, mining, and transportation operations.

There are many areas that were “past the ecological tipping point,” meaning that after clear-cut logging, followed by smelter contamination, some areas were totally degraded and eroded and incapable of recovery without intervention.

Restoration and remediation projects have been developed to mimic nature, to capture and hold sediment by building structures to slow and stop water, as well as restoring vegetation and controlling non-native weeds.

He concluded his presentation saying, “We have what works. Now we can scale it up into wider areas.”

Jim Olsen, FWP fisheries biologist for the Big Hole area, talked about efforts to save and restore native fish, such as westslope cutthroat trout and grayling on the WMA, particularly in the French Creek drainage.

The French Creek drainage is all on public land, either WMA or Forest Service, and has habitat that is good, or is improving after remediation, and already has some populations of native fish, plus pearl shell mussels, a unique fresh water mussel that needs native fish for propagation.

The restoration project has several major steps, including a fish barrier to prevent non-native fish from moving back into the watershed, then removing non-native trout, and, finally, restoring native fish.

It’s a multi-year project, with barrier construction, removing existing fish, and then, finally, restocking native cutthroat trout, grayling, mountain whitefish, sculpin and longnose dace. When restocking begins, sterile hatchery-raised cutthroat trout will also be introduced to kick-start the fishery.

Olsen concluded his presentation noting that in previous projects, some 67 miles of tributaries have completed restoration projects, and the French Creek project, with 40 miles of tributaries, will substantially increase the amount of streams with native fish populations.

The next TU program meeting will be on February 15 at the Butte Brewing conference room, and is free and open to the public. Also, the annual fundraising banquet will be at the Copper King Hotel on March 9.

It may be winter, but it’s time to get back into a fishing mode.

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