Before a railroad was built next to Cedar Creek, the 20-mile stream meandered through the forest and served as prime habitat for the bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout, the creek's native species.
But following railroad construction adjacent to the creek during the mining boom in the late 1800s, the creek became almost perfectly straight, destroying its natural bends that creates crucial habitat for native trout species.
While the railroad no longer exists, the U.S. Forest Service used the old railroad bed to build their own road in its place, which still invades the now-endangered bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout's habitat.
But Trout Unlimited, a cold-water fisheries conservation organization, has collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Northwestern Energy to relocate the road to recreate the creek that existed before railroad construction.
The straightened road absorbs the creek's floodplains, resulting in an equally straightened stream creating a high velocity and an unhealthy habitat for wildlife.
“Straightened streams have more energy,” said Paul Parson, Trout Unlimited's Middle Clark Fork program manager. “If you think of a firehose, it shoots water out a lot faster, and it's hard for any aquatic wildlife to live in that environment when you have really concentrated energy.”
To fix this, Parson brought in contractors from Superior-based Haskins Excavating to remove 800 feet of road and relocate it 200 feet horizontally so that it's next to the mountain and no longer impacting Cedar Creek.
“I know to a lot of folks that seems pretty silly to move a road 200 feet,” Parson said. “But it's actually really, really beneficial to allow this floodplain and storage and new habitat.”
Once excavators remove the road, their next step is to rebuild those new flood plains. Parson looks at historic run off levels to see where these areas would normally flood if the road never existed, and those levels are recreated with more excavation which also rebuild the wetland habitat. He says they have already found old streambed where they are digging right now.
Parson says this fall they plan on returning to Cedar Creek with volunteers to revegetate the new meandering stream with about 1,000 native nursery plants, willow cuttings and grass seed.
The road prevented roadside vegetation, so cedar trees that normally would have grown next to the creek didn't exist. Normally, trees would provide cover to shade the water causing lower temperatures in the 50 to 55 degree fahrenheit range where the cold-water trout thrive in.
In addition to less shade alongside the water, if trees don't exist they cannot fall into the water and log jams cannot form. Another important habitat for trout to congregate in to escape the warmer temperatures. Log jams are also important for birds and other riparian species that rely on vegetation for nesting.
The road project started in 2015, where they relocated one mile of forest service road adjacent to Cayuse Creek and Oregon Gulch. In these first two phases, they removed more than 10,000 cubic yards of material from the floodplain and placed more than 300 trees in create log jams for fish habitat.
“We've seen significant increase in fish numbers,” said Lad Knoteck, an FWP biologist who helps monitor fish populations on the project. Knoteck says that by providing flood plains for the stream, it addresses their concerns and allows fish to move back in the stream.
By relocating the road, Knoteck says this also prevented road sediment from disturbing fish spawning, and more fish populations are expected over time.
Cedar Creek is listed as a Priority Bull Trout Watershed by the U.S. Forest Service and is designated as core bull trout habitat by the Montana Bull Trout Scientific Group.
Other fish populations in Cedar Creek include nonnative species like mountain whitefish, brown trout and eastern brook trout. But the creek's native bull trout and westslope cutthroat dominate the population in an unusual circumstance.
With a high elevation and abundant precipitation at Cedar Creek's headwaters on the Idaho/Montana state line, constant cold stream temperatures create prime bull trout and westslope cutthroat habitat. Since few other watershed's in Montana contain bull trout, Cedar Creek has become an important part of their recovery.
That's why it's important to restore the stream to create an environment for native trout to flourish and recover the native species with road relocation.
After seeing higher fish numbers in the previously relocated road stretches, both Parson and Knoteck hope to see similar results. “We expect the same response,” Knoteck said.