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Birds A Barometer Of Clark Fork Superfund Cleanup Progress

Nora Saks

Scientists have long used fish and aquatic insects as ecological indicators to measure the success of the Superfund cleanup from Butte to Missoula. But as cleanup on the main stem of the Clark Fork River gets more complicated, the birders are getting involved.

On a late July morning, I’m ducking under willow branches and marching through mud along an unremediated stretch of the Clark Fork River in the Deer Lodge Valley. I’m trailing a few dozen khaki-clad birders who are venturing out on the first ever Superfund Birding Tour, organized by a handful of local bird and ecology groups.

"Here’s our nice little willow flycatcher," says Boo Curry.

We’ve stopped short in front of a barely visible "mist net" draped across dense shrubs. Boo Curry, with the UM Bird Ecology Lab, reaches for a petite greyish bird swaddled in its web, and gently untucks it.

"We catch a lot of these guys at most of our riparian sites," says Curry. 

Boo Curry, with the UM Bird Ecology Lab with a captured willow flycatcher.
Credit Nora Saks
Boo Curry, with the UM Bird Ecology Lab with a captured willow flycatcher.

That’s a good sign, ecologically speaking. Willow flycatchers make their nests in mature willows, so they’re considered an indicator species, a strong signal that the riparian area is lush and healthy.

This one is already wearing a tiny ankle band with a unique number, telling Curry it was caught here earlier this morning.

"Does anyone want to let the bird go?" says Curry. "Yeah? Let’s step away from the net so it doesn’t go back in. Oh! And he was ready to go!"

The Bird Ecology Lab bands birds routinely throughout the greater Missoula area. It helps them build demographic profiles of the population. But it’s the first time researchers are out at this particular site.

They want to get a better handle on what happens to bird populations as the Upper Clark Fork River undergoes Superfund cleanup. Because it’s not just willow flycatchers that need healthy riverside habitat to thrive.

Avian ecologist Mike Kryzwicki,with the bird ecology lab, says about 430 bird species occur in Montana.

"And 90 percent of those use riparian areas at some point in their life cycle," says Kryzwicki. "Sixty percent of those breed in riparian areas. And 45 percent of those 430 species only exist in riparian areas in the state."

But scouring the river’s banks to remove toxic mine waste left there by a massive flood a century ago, and rebuilding the floodplain from scratch, transforms the landscape.

Will McDowell, the Restoration Director for the Clark Fork Coalition, says when you do the Superfund cleanup, "All the soil gets turned up, dug up and everything has to be replanted with new soil, so it’s a really big process to try to bring it back to a high quality natural habitat."

This 40-ish mile stretch of the Clark Fork, between Warm Springs and Garrison, is the most contaminated, and runs primarily through private agricultural land.

So the non-profit bought Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch, and volunteered the four mile stretch of riverbank running through it as a guinea pig. Between 2014 and 2016, about 50,000 dump truck loads of dirty soil were hauled off the riverfront on the property.

"That fence right there is the edge of the cleanup," says McDowell. "That’s the Superfund boundary."

And, it’s stark. Over here, just across the road from the bird banding station, the ranch’s remediated floodplain is more brown than green. A smattering of replanted willow seedlings and saplings dot the banks.

"It’s going to take at least a couple decades probably to get close to what it originally was, because those were very old plants," says McDowell. "Those willows are actually decades old."

While remediation is necessary for the long term health of the ecosystem, — spoiler alert in the short term — removing all that big leafy stuff has a big impact on birds. 

Warm Spring Ponds.
Credit Nora Saks
Warm Spring Ponds.

Back at the ranch house, McDowell shared some fresh data with the tour group, about 25 members of Five Valleys Audubon and the Montana Natural History Center. He said the UM Bird Ecology Lab’s Megan Fylling banded at the ranch back in 2007, before the cleanup.

"She started out with very high numbers of birds, and actually very high diversity, relative even to some of your other banding sites. Very productive habitat, even though it was contaminated." 

They repeated the study this summer, two years post-cleanup, and the number of species had dropped from 21 to eight. The total number of birds dropped drastically too.

"We’re really interested in monitoring this over time to see if that vegetation comes back sufficiently to support something close to the original species diversity and abundance of birds that was there," says McDowell. "We don’t know yet."

Other local bird experts I talked to said bird populations don’t tend to bounce back until five or six years after cleanup when the willows start to fill in. And it will likely take decades before cottonwoods re-establish and any new species appear.

But in that revegetation process, inches matter. Willows, cottonwoods and other floodplain species are adapted to grow in flood cycles.

McDowell is concerned that as the state Department of Environmental Quality rebuilds the floodplain, "If they put it a few inches too high, they may not ever get flooding, or very rarely get flooding, and you won’t get the Milltown model effect, of the land naturally revegetating itself. It’s very difficult to reveg these sites by just human labor and effort. You need nature to help."

That’s especially important when funding is tight. DEQ has about $75 million left to finish the remaining 80 percent of this reach of the Clark Fork. And each river mile is different. It cost about $4 million per mile to cleanup Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch.

So the Clark Fork Coalition is encouraging the agency to use lessons learned on their land as they continue cleanup on the rest of the river - and to adopt strategies that will both reduce labor costs and help habitat and wildlife return faster.

But out in nature, that line between clean and dirty is messier.

"We don’t care what bird you saw in Argentina, or the last time you were out," says Gary Swant. "We want to focus on what we’re doing today,"  Gary Swant tells the group of birders.

Just a few miles upstream from the ranch, Swant guides the binocular-laden group towards a surprising sanctuary for birds and those who love them — Warm Springs Ponds. Swant is a consultant and does bird surveys for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and industry.

Cormorants, gulls, greebes, and white pelicans come into view as we close in on a family of shimmering man-made ponds.

Warm Springs Ponds are an important chapter of the Clark Fork Superfund story. Owned by Atlantic Richfield, the 2,400 acre wetland area drops out heavy metals flowing in from Silver Bow Creek before they reach the river, just beyond here.

And though toxic sediments lurk just below, these ponds have become a wildlife haven.

"So they think that the lime here is settling in and capping these heavy metals and the fish and the birds are above those heavy metals," says Swant. "So there’s not a lot of interaction between the heavy metals and the waterfowl, fish."

Swant says the ponds are a trophy fishery and a crucial staging area for migrating birds. He’s been coming here weekly for years and has spotted half of the bird species that exist in the entire state right here. And some that exist virtually nowhere else.

Everyone is taking turns at a scope aimed at a jumble of sticks right in the center of one of the ponds.

"The one right out there," says Swant. "You see it? That is the nest of the black-crowned night heron, the one we’re all excited about."

Birders near Warm Springs Pond.
Credit Nora Saks
Birders near Warm Springs Pond.

Swant says this is the only nest west of the continental divide that he’s aware of. No one’s home at the moment, but birdwatcher Jean Woessner, from Missoula isn’t too crestfallen at missing the night heron.

"It’s phenomenal to know that this was once a terrible wasteland really, and now it’s fertile place for birds, lots of filling in vegetation, lots of water that looks not too bad," says Woessner. "It’s really amazing."

Once the Superfund cleanup upstream is finished, Swant says these wetlands will be managed for maximum bird use, instead of heavy metals. He predicts, "This is going to become one of the premiere birding areas of Western Montana."

Tom Bowler was also on the tour, busy snapping photos with a monster zoom lens. And while he’s hopeful about the future of Warm Springs Ponds, "It’s not all rose colored glasses," he says. "They still have to look and see what’s happening with that stuff at the bottom that’s been deposited here for a hundred years."

Bowler works at another Superfund site in Butte, and thinks about these complexities in the watershed a lot. Sometimes, he even puts them in a song. He took one by the Righteous Brothers, Rock and Roll Heaven, and revamped the lyrics.

"'If you believe in forever, life is just a one night stand. If there’s a rock and roll heaven, they’ve gotta have a hell of a band.' I said ‘if you believe in forever, the life of remediation is anyone’s guess. If there’s a Superfund heaven, it’s gotta be a hell of a mess.'” says Bowler

DEQ started the Superfund cleanup on the Upper Clark Fork in 2011, and plans to focus work on Grant Kohrs Ranch in Deer Lodge this fall. 

Nora Saks is a reporter and producer based in Butte, MT.
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