NRCS Partners with Other Organizations for Wetlands Restoration, Protection
In 2005, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partnered with several conservation organizations, government agencies and local ranches to restore and protect one of the largest wetland complexes in Montana—O’Dell Creek Headwaters Wetlands in the Madison Valley.
Overlook of a section of the O'Dell Creek restoration project.
An area of restored wetland in the most recent restoration phase.
Historically grazed year-round, the O’Dell Creek and Madison River floodplain provided abundant forage, flowing water and refuge from harsh weather. The O’Dell headwaters were drained in the 1950s to make the area more usable for agricultural operations. Over the years, the draining and livestock uses began to take a toll.
“I could see the degradation,” said Jeff Laszlo, one of the owners of Granger Ranches LP—where the creek is located. “There was a decline in both the grass production of our river bottoms and the overall health of our riparian area. Although I really didn’t know what to do about it, I felt that there had to be a better way of managing and taking care of one of the ranch’s most important assets.”
That’s when he started working with NRCS and other conservation partners.
“Our only prior experience with NRCS was on more ranching-intensive projects, such as windbreaks, upgrading irrigation systems, and reseeding fields,” Laszlo said. “We had never undertaken anything this resource-oriented as what was being proposed to restore O’Dell Creek and its associated wetlands.”
In 2012 as part of the sixth phase of the O’Dell restoration project, Granger Ranches enrolled in NRCS’s Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program (WREP). As a part of WREP, the agency financed 75 percent of the stream and wetland work, which included 5,000 feet of stream restoration, nearly 80 acres of wetland restoration, and over 9,000 feet of fencing. Unlike the standard Wetlands Reserve Program the 30-year WREP easement allows for annual, managed livestock grazing.
In addition to providing financial assistance for the restoration, NRCS established a site-specific management plan for the easement. The goals: increase plant diversity, improve water quality and provide better habitat for fisheries and wetland-dependent wildlife species.
After years of work with NRCS and other conservation partners—including private, nonprofit and government entities—Laszlo is seeing results.
“The O’Dell restoration has been a tremendous success, even beyond what was initially hoped for,” he said. “The fish and wildlife response has been incredible. Bird species have increased 10 fold, Trumpeter Swans have been introduced and are thriving, the fishery is healthier, water quality has improved and over 200 plant species have been identified including some very rare ones.
“These benefits flow with the water downstream. O’Dell Creek is an important tributary to the Madison River, and now it’s providing colder and cleaner water, an important resource that so many depend on or enjoy for recreation,” Laszlo said.
Despite the challenges inherent in working on a large undertaking within a comprehensive and diverse partnership, Laszlo feels the process worked smoothly.
“We all found a way to work together because we all had a common interest,” he said. “This restoration has now taken 8 years and required contributions from many different sources.”
Laszlo admits this project forced him to look at ranching differently. He now sees that in any agricultural operation, there must be a balance between agricultural operations and protecting and enhancing natural resources. “As a rancher, I’ve learned that conservation and ranching are not mutually exclusive pursuits. In fact, to do either well you’d have to do them together,” he said.
While the floodplain improvements speak for themselves, the local support he has received was unexpected.
“Developing trust and good working relationships between entities that do not commonly work closely together lays the ground work for other interested parties to follow suit,” he said. “While I wasn’t the first to do something like this, I think what we’ve done, and how we’ve done it, may have broken down some barriers that have existed between the ranching community, environmental groups and government agencies.
“I never anticipated how complex this project would be or how rewarding. I am thankful for all the great partners who have contributed so much, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service.”