Biologists hope that a small but hardy population of Yellowstone cutthroat trout will benefit from a project in Piney Creek in the Pryor Mountains.
The fall of 2010 found BLM biologists, range specialists, and fire crews dragging logs through the sage brush terrace and into Piney Creek. By placing logs in and around the stream bed, biologists hoped to enhance the complexity of Yellowstone cutthroat trout (YCT) habitat and boost the numbers and health of a small but pure and aboriginal population rare to any stream this far east.
Piney Creek is a tributary to Sage Creek, which drains into the Shoshone River in Wyoming and eventually Big Horn Lake. It is a small, spring-fed stream on the southwest flank of the Pryor Mountains. With only 5-9 inches of annual precipitation, this area is among the driest, most desert-like places in Montana. There, any water source is an oasis. The nearest consistent water sources are Sage Creek and Crooked Creek, 10 miles to the north and east respectively. Incredibly, this native population of YCT has persisted for many years, inhabiting only three-quarters of a mile of stream with marginal habitat conditions.
Using logs to increase habitat complexity in small streams is a technique commonly used by BLM and other agencies with great success. The logs and log structures break up the regular flow of water in stream channels, slowing it in some places and speeding it up in others. The results include scoured-out pools in the streambed where fish can rest in deeper water out of fast currents; sorted gravel beds deposited from the scour where fish can spawn; organic debris traps that retain nutrients from fallen leaves and other detritus; overhead cover that protects fish from predators; and sediment deposits on the channel margins, which reduces the stream width and allows for a more vigorous riparian community to shade the water and keep it cool.
The project location extended from the Forest Service boundary on upper Piney Creek through BLM and state ownership, and on through private lands owned by a very helpful and cooperative ranch family, the Loynings. During discussions with the BLM on how to improve riparian and habitat conditions on Piney Creek, Paul Loyning suggested fencing the stream and excluding it from grazing in exchange for the BLM helping him develop some off-site stock water. When the issue of losing fish into the irrigation system came up in discussions with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks specialists, Mr. Loyning was willing to allow them to rebuild his reservoir and irrigation intake system to make it “fish friendly.” The Loyning ranch was running along just fine without us, but Paul Loyning and his family recognized the value of Piney Creek and its YCT population and willingly made some changes and a few sacrifices to help protect this special resource.
In the end, about 55 logs were placed in 20 structures over half a mile of the stream; three-quarters of a mile of fence was constructed by the Loyning ranch to exclude livestock grazing from the entire fish-bearing reach of Piney Creek; three water troughs were placed to aid in livestock dispersement across the adjacent range; and the Loyning reservoir was deepened to 11 feet with three screened outlets for irrigation intake.