'Field Notes': Wildlife Flock To Montana's Riparian Zones

Mar 28, 2016

Two otters slip down a riverbank to merge with the cool depths of the Madison. An angler casts into a limpid pool. Nearby, a kingfisher plunges and emerges from the riffles, a minnow draped through its bill like a mustache. The profusion of wildlife in and around Montana’s blue-ribbon trout streams is no accident.

Let’s start with what’s around the streams. It’s not just human real estate that goes for top dollar here. Wildlife flocks, ambles and races to the strip of green shrubbery and trees that thrive at a healthy water’s edge. Called the riparian area, this precious interface between land and water shelters more wildlife than any other habitat, yet covers less than one percent of Montana’s land base.

Birds notably seek riparian life. The large majority of Montana’s bird species might be spotted here. They range in size from bald eagles to Pacific wrens. Some stay year-round, while others migrate as far as Mexico and South America each winter. Some dine on aquatic insects, others on chokecherry berries and an array of seeds. Colorful songbirds like Yellow Warblers, American Redstarts and Orchard Orioles nest in thickets or trees. In addition to sheltering birds, water-loving cottonwoods, willows, and aspen shade rivers, helping to keep the waters cool.

Like a symphony, all the parts to achieve this ecological harmony must be present and playing in tune. If the waters are fouled, all the shading in the world will do nothing for the cold-water-loving trout. If toxins kill caddisfly and stonefly nymphs, the major food for trout disappears. We know this from looking at the Upper Clark Fork River, which was long polluted by mining wastes, but is now, thanks to the hard work of many people, agencies and organizations, in the slow but already successful process of restoration and healing.

But for decades, fish were few and frogs were completely absent. You would have been hard-pressed to see otters, mink, or beavers. As pollution passes from tiny prey to predators like mink and bald eagles, it becomes even more concentrated. Scrawny trees, too, are witness to the poisoning that extended beyond the water to the soils. The contamination of the Upper Clark Fork and the decades it will take to restore it serve as a grim reminder of how fortunate we are in most parts of Montana compared to many other states. A staggering 40 percent of the rivers and lakes in the United States are too polluted for fishing and swimming. In contrast, our cold-water trout fishery alone is worth $340 million annually to Montana’s economy.

Beyond economic worth lies the immeasurable value of cleansing our spirits when in the presence of pristine waters and the wild creatures that leave their mark for us to ponder. Recently, while strolling along the Bitterroot River, savoring the last burst of autumn warmth, a blood-red dragonfly landed on my friend’s hand, its frayed yet lovely wings as clear and fragile as the river itself.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Field Notes," 12/27/15. Listen on air or online Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m., and Fridays at 4:54 p.m., or via podcast.)