CSKT works to restore Has Sandhill Cranes wetland

This story was published in the Missoulian and Char-Koosta News.

There’s a place between Hot Springs and the Upper Little Bitterroot River, on the Flathead Indian Reservation, called “Has Sandhill Cranes.”

Ten years ago, it had no sandhill cranes.

Water from the river, which had once fed a wetland of native birds and amphibians, was channeled into deep, straight irrigation ditches. Cattle trampled native grasses and shrubs, and birds flew elsewhere.  Some, like the trumpeter swan, were long gone anyway, due to over-hunting.

The northern leopard frog, which the state of Montana has designated a species of concern, is making a comeback on the Flathead Reservation. Photo by Kindra McQuillan

And the frog with the intricate, haloed spots and grinding croak—the northern leopard frog—had disappeared from the reservation altogether, designated as “extirpated” since about 1980.

Today, a wide wetland of native rushes and sedges again spreads across Has Sandhill Cranes.  Trumpeter swans fly overhead, as do ducks, marsh wrens, red-winged blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, soras, bitterns, virginia rails, coots, curlews, pied billed grieves, and of course, sandhill cranes. There’s a racket of warbles and screeches—and croaks.

Tribal biologists brought leopard frog eggs here from Wyoming beginning in 2006, and the frogs appear to be sticking around. “In more recent years we’ve been finding them calling, hopefully laying eggs, too,” says Janene Lichtenberg, a wildlife biologist for the tribes’ Wildlife Management Program.

On a recent spring afternoon, Lichtenberg slogs through the wetland in a pair of waders, carrying instruments and a notebook, stopping now and then to take measurements and notes. She’s getting an idea of how the frogs are doing, and what spots and conditions they like.

Restoring Has Sandhill Cranes to a home for leopard frogs and other critters has required many hands. Crews excavated and rerouted ditches and ponds, used controlled burns, and grew and planted native plants. Biologists searched for leopard frog eggs in Wyoming, and every year since 2006 they’ve made the trip there to bring more egg masses back. There’s also the monitoring Lichtenberg is conducting today.

All of this restoration work, here on the reservation and elsewhere, amounts to a sector of the state’s economy that’s growing faster than natural resource extraction. Between 2003 and 2011, restoration jobs increased by 7.9 percent, compared to 0.9 percent for all other sectors, according to data from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

Has Sandhill Cranes is a case in point: Using Kerr Dam mitigation money, the tribes bought the land from ranchers and hired dozens of workers, from excavators to biologists. It’s just one of several restoration projects on the reservation that are reviving 11,354 total acres of habitat. Others projects include routing the Jocko River back into its original channel and building wildlife crossings over and under Highway 93.

The work creates a lot of jobs. “Like when Highway 93 was rebuilt,” Lichtenberg says. “Think about all the road crews that were on and all the people doing different kinds of work—habitat restoration and the replanting along the roadway and the wildlife crossings…That employed a lot of people.”

Has Sandhill Cranes is one of several restoration projects on the Flathead Reservation reviving 11,354 acres of habitat. Photo by Kindra McQuillan.

Has Sandhill Cranes is one of several restoration projects on the Flathead Reservation reviving 11,354 acres of habitat. Photo by Kindra McQuillan.

And the work continues to bring economic benefits long after it’s completed.

“I know our wetlands have become really popular with the birding community, and that’s certainly bringing in tourism dollars,” Lichtenberg says. “And a lot of the sites [attract] waterfowl and upland game bird hunters.”

What draws tourists is also what compels people to move to Montana, says Mark Haggerty of Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman-based nonprofit research group.

“People find ways to live in Montana and work in sectors that have nothing to do, actually, with natural resources,” he says. “They’re attorneys or stock brokers or teachers, and they live in Montana because it’s a wonderful place to live and raise a family, because you’ve got access to all these beautiful natural resources.”

The Montana Department of Labor and Industry estimates that $1 million spent on restoration yields about 20 new full-time jobs in the service sector on top of the 11 restoration jobs it creates. All of these jobs mean that $1 million invested in restoration adds about $2.6 million to the economy.

“Montana has a lot of unique opportunities that don’t necessarily exist elsewhere,” Haggerty says. “And I think that’s definitely true in the Flathead.”

Lichtenberg can attest. Back at Has Sandhill Cranes, she’s busy packing her waders into a Jeep when she suddenly stops and stares. 

A sora, a water bird known for its odd, descending whine and extreme secrecy, abruptly floats out from behind a stand of cattails. And then a few seconds later, just as suddenly, it disappears.