Ranchers in Montana are finding innovative ways to support their livestock while conserving native fisheries. A group of ranchers, conservationists and wildlife advocates recently visited the Hahn Ranch, a 2018 National Environmental Stewardship Award finalist recognized for its role restoring Deep Creek.
On a cool, rainy morning near Townsend, the tour group looks down at the clear water flowing through Deep Creek. It connects to the Missouri River and serves as an important spawning site for brown and rainbow trout.
This scene represents 30 years of collaboration between landowners, agencies and conservation groups.
"You might get confused on this tour if it’s a Hahn Ranch tour or a watershed group tour because we’re seeing a couple places upstream off of Hahn Ranch, but we wouldn’t have had a watershed group if the Hahns hadn’t been the leader, saying, 'We see something that works for both agriculture and fish,'" Ron Spoon, a fisheries biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says.
In 1988, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality included Deep Creek on its list of impaired waters. The creek had a lot of erosion problems; it was muddy and warm, and between May and October, the water was diverted into an irrigation ditch.
Rancher Chuck Hahn says fish would end up in farmers’ fields.
"They’d just scoop them out with pitchforks, take them to the wife, and she we would can them for winter. But they never even had the chance to get back to the river or to the lake again," Hahn says.
In the early 90s, the Hahns started working with FWP’s Ron Spoon, neighbors, water user associations and local agencies to restore the creek. They installed a siphon to keep Deep Creek free-flowing and separate from the irrigation ditch.
They also fenced off livestock around the creek as part of their efforts to restore the stream beds and vegetation.
Several decades later, Deep Creek has higher, cooler water levels in the summer and a lot more fish — about 2,000-3,000 brown trout juveniles. DEQ removed Deep Creek from the state’s impaired waters list in 2016.
On a recent tour of the Hahn Ranch organized by the Montana Stockgrowers Foundation, Laura Nelson, a reporter from Big Timber, asks Chuck Hahn’s son, "Why do cowboys care about fish?"
"If you're interested in the landscape and the ecosystem and want to keep everybody happy that is involved with the stream or the watercourse, I think that the fish are a visible and good indivater of stream health," Dusty Hahn says.
At another stop on the tour, the group walks up to a metal sculpture of two people shaking hands. It’s dedicated to the people who worked to restore Deep Creek.
"We’ve seen what’s been successful here. Why don’t we do this everywhere?" says Andy Brummond, a water resource specialist with FWP. "Because you need the people involved, the people with the water rights, the people in the creek to be willing to do it."
Brummond used to work for the Montana Department of Natual Resources and Conservation, processing applications for new water rights and changes to existing ones, which can be complicated. Now he's helping landowners so that FWP can lease the water rights on the creek to make sure water levels stay high.
He says there are plenty of examples around the state where landowners have worked with agencies or coalitions to conserve water or switch water sources to protect a stream. But the story of Deep Creek is unique because there was so much competition for the water and the creek was actually drying up.
"If we didn’t have water, we would not be a viable operation. It’s our lifeblood, essentially," Chuck Hahn says.
This part of Montana usually gets less than twelve inches of rain a year. The ranch would not be able to raise 550 cattle or grow hay, grain and forage crops without irrigation. Hahn says coming up with a collaborative solution was a win-win.
The family is working on other conservation efforts as well. They’ve adopted no-till farming and use forage crops to improve soil health while allowing longer rest periods on their rangelands.
On the tour, Hahn shared how open land provides habitat and migration corridors for wildlife.
"It’s something that the ranch has really been interested in because we always liked the wildlife, and it makes me feel really good that we’ve been able to accomplish something like this and benefit agriculture and recreation," Hahn says.
With job opportunities in nearby Helena and the recreational draw of Canyon Ferry Lake, more subdivisions have been popping up near the Hahn Ranch.
Hahn says if more people understand how ranchers are stewards of the land, maybe this century-old operation can keep going another 100 years.