The general thought among ranchers used to be that draining wetlands made them more productive for grazing.
But times have changed and science has changed. It turns out that wetlands can provide an elevated water table, which in turn can make adjacent rangeland more productive for grazing, while providing important wildlife habitat.
If you need any proof, give Jeff Laszlo a call at Granger Ranches. He has spent the last six years, with the help of several organizations and partners, restoring more than 500 acres of wetlands and nine miles of small streams that constitute the headwaters for O’Dell Creek south of Ennis.
The work has not only transformed his pastures, but also rehabilitated a wetland system crucial for the Madison River and O’Dell Creek. The restoration work has also contributed to a dramatic increase in both aquatic and riparian wildlife in the area.
“This ground is storing cold, clean water in a way it wasn’t doing before,” Laszlo said as he looked down on the project from the bench above.
From this vantage point you can see the series of ponds that have been constructed as well as the re-channelization of an old irrigation ditch to more accurately mimic what was present historically. If you look close, you can also see nesting ducks using the fringes of the ponds. Like many other birds, nesting waterfowl have returned in droves to the upper reaches of O’Dell Creek.
But it isn’t just the birds that are appreciative of the work Laszlo and others have done on O’Dell Creek. Recently the Environmental Law Institute honored him with a national wetland award for land stewardship. He is the first Montana rancher to receive the award.
“We’ve been working on this project for six years, so it’s really an honor to be recognized for that work and to have all our partners who have been working with us get recognized,” he said.
The project really started back in 2003 when Laszlo first decided to look into restoring the wetlands.
It was a big decision, he said. His family had owned the Granger Ranch since the 1930s and it was essentially run as a regular ranch. However, much of the ranch is under a conservation easement, so it wasn’t as if the Laszlos didn’t think about conservation. But the wetlands restoration seemed to be a big leap.
Laszlo looked for some advice from Tom Hinz, coordinator for Montana Wetlands Legacy program, and Rob Hazlewood, president of Ranchland Wildlife Consultants, Inc. He points to Hinz and Hazlewood as the ones who saw the potential for the restoration work on his ranch.
“Tom and Rob were the two guys who saw the opportunity,” Laszlo said. “I was sort of on the fence. I wanted to do it, but I was scared to do it.”
The three men began to research what the land looked like prior to draining the wetlands. They poured over old photographs, walked back and forth across the property all in an effort to discern where the old channels were and where the imprints of the old ponds were hidden.
In that part of the Madison River bottom it’s not too hard to drain a wetland. The key is to capture water coming down from the bench to the east in a canal that moves it north. A couple of other ditches between the bench and the river was really all that was needed to take the water out of the wetland and move it north and off the pasture.
To undo the work was more than just re-routing ditches. It was to slow the water flow off the property in an effort to re-saturate the ground.
“We just wanted to stop the drainage from continuing,” Hinz said.
This was accomplished by essentially damming ditches running across the property. These dams created a series of shallow ponds that allowed the water to seep out into the ground, he said.
Hinz described the ground as sort of a sponge.
Wetlands are more than just the sedges, reeds, grasses and ponds. They also have certain soil types that act like a sponge, he said. Water soaks into the ground and then is slowly, consistently released into and through ponds, seeps and small springs.
This continual cycle of water through a wetland does a couple of things, Hinz said. It keeps systems, like O’Dell Creek and the Madison River, supplied with the clean and cold water that aquatic life, like fish and insects, are dependent on. It also allows the water table, which was dropped by the draining of the wetlands, to recharge and rise. This sub-irrigates the uplands within the wetland complex making the grass more lush and abundant.
This is where the cattle and ranching come into play.
“From an agricultural standpoint … the productivity of this area is certainly going to go up,” Hazlewood said.
Since the restoration more water is actually flowing off of the property, Laszlo said.
The effects on the habitat are striking.
The Avian Science Center at the University of Montana has been surveying the project area from the beginning to give Laszlo an idea of how the wildlife, particularly birds, is responding to the restoration.
In 2009, several waterfowl species were found in breeding pairs in the area that weren’t present just the year before. These included cinnamon and blue-wing teal, lesser scaup and northern shovelers.
Song birds and marsh birds have returned as well, these include the Sora and sandhill cranes. In fact, the restoration area has become a significant staging ground for migrating sandhill cranes, according to the report from the Avian Science Center.
According to the report, during the 10 years prior to the restoration an average of about 130 cranes used the area. In 2009 more than 760 cranes used the restoration area as a pre-migration staging ground.
When the three men talk about the project, they speak often of partners and many groups and government agencies have contributed either money or expertise to the project. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are a few of the government agencies.
From the private end of things, partners include Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, the Madison River Foundation and River Design.
But one of the more important partnerships has been with PPL Montana, which got involved with the project from the beginning, Laszlo said.
PPL Montana has donated both money and expertise to the project, said their spokesman, Jon Jourdonnais.
“The cost effectiveness of doing work there has been very positive,” Jourdonnais said. “It’s just kind of a unique project and one that’s just providing a tremendous number of benefits for the amount of money and effort involved.”
PPL’s involvement stems not only from a stewardship philosophy but a mandate to help mitigate the impact of the two dams they own on the Madison River.
But the great thing about the O’Dell Creek project is that its benefit extends beyond the Madison Valley, Jourdonnais said. Improved nesting for waterfowl and other birds benefits all of southwest Montana and the care of the water resource helps the entire Madison River system.
“Any time we can conserve water, even in small ways, it should mean something to anybody that uses water down stream from here,” Laszlo said.
The project is continuing, he said. So far about $1.2 million has been invested into the restoration work and there’s more to do.
Along O’Dell Creek there are potentially 8,000 acres of restorable wetlands, Hinz said.
“We look at what can be done and the funds available to do it,” Laszlo said.
The project can also serve as an example of how ranching and habitat restoration can work together, he said.
“It’s really a win, win across the board,” Laszlo said. “We’ve set aside a certain numbers of acres for this project, but we really haven’t given anything up because the acres we do have are producing more.”
The other benefit of the project has been to show how conservation groups and interests can work together with ranchers.
“Maybe if we take a chance and we learn how to work together maybe we can achieve a lot of common interests,” he said. “It’s not just environmental, but I think it’s about learning how to take chances and how to communicate with people and find common objectives that meet a lot of different goals.”