River foundations celebrates accomplishments at festival

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Fly fisherman from around the state and the region converged on Labor Day weekend to Ennis for the 10th Ennis on the Madison Fly Fishing Festival.

They came for educational seminars covering a variety of topics from fishing techniques, rod building and fly tying.

Attendees also enjoyed the annual bucket raffle and drift boat raffle, which was won this year by Tom Mocilac of Whitehall.

The festival is also the hallmark event for the Madison River Foundation, a local non-profit foundation focused on enhancing, protecting and preserving the Madison River and it’s ecosystem.

On Saturday of the festival, Madison River Foundation Executive Director Richard Lessner and newly elected president David Bricker discussed the projects the foundation has worked on over the past year, including a unique and important study of Madison River mountain whitefish.

The foundation and its members really like projects that put their “boots in the water,” Bricker said. Last year these types of projects have included fence building in the Gravellys, willow planting along the Madison River and fish capturing on Ruby Creek.

“Our members really enjoy getting out and getting their feet wet,” Bricker said.

In the past year the foundation has continued work on projects in the Wigwam Creek area in the Gravelly Mountains to help protect a nearly pure population of westslope cutthroat trout, Lessner said.

Wigwam Creek was the location of the first project ever completed by the Madison River Foundation and this year the group went back to build nearly three miles of jack-legged fence to help keep cattle out of Arasta Creek, which is a major tributary to Wigwam Creek.

The foundation also continued work with the Granger Ranch on using electrical fencing to organize cattle grazing along O’Dell Creek and the Madison River just south of Ennis. This year was the third year of the project that has divided the area into 10 grazing sections and then rotated cattle through each section during the summer. The idea is to keep cattle off the riverbank and focus grazing on small areas over a short period of time.

The project has also involved inventorying grasses in the area to see how they are holding up to the changes in grazing. The results have been very positive, Lessner said. The ranches cattle seem to be gaining more weight and the range seems to be healthier. And the cattle are being kept off the river bank in the area, which is allowing native willows to begin to regrow.

The biggest project the foundation has undertaken to date is a study of mountain whitefish in the Madison River and started last spring and will go until 2014.

The impetus for the project came from a wide agreement that whitefish populations in the Madison River were in decline, Lessner said. So the foundation approached Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks about doing a study.

The agency was excited at the opportunity and so the foundation went out and found funding for the first two years of the study, which will involve all the fieldwork. Funding for the third year hasn’t been secured yet, but Lessner was optimistic.

The fact is whitefish draw little attention from anglers or scientists. The native salmonid is historically a very prolific and underappreciated fish.

“Even though it’s a native fish and its a salmonid, we know very, very little about them,” Bricker said.

This spring, FWP researchers along with students from Montana State University and with the help of fishermen volunteers with the Madison River Foundation caught whitefish between Hebgen Dam and Ennis Lake. Seventy of the fish had transmitters surgically placed in their bellies so scientist could track their movements and find out more about where the fish spawn and move through the year.

Scientists in other studies have found that whitefish may be more susceptible to whirling disease than trout, Lessner said. However, it’s unclear if whirling disease is impacting whitefish on the Madison. The foundation’s research project should help begin to answer questions.

“This is the biggest research project every undertaken on mountain whitefish in the wild,” he said.

The Madison River Foundation continues to look for projects and funding, focusing on opportunities to work with private landowners and foundations along with federal and state agencies to maximize their efforts, Lessner said.

The Madison River Foundation began in 2012 and boasts 450 members from 42 states.

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