The Arnold Bolle Award

Don Peters & Ron Pierce - 2018

Don Peters-R & Ron Pierce -L
Ron Pierce – L, Don Peters – R

In the 1980’s, friends of the Blackfoot River formed the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited to rescue the river from years of decline. Their energy & fundraising helped direct Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks veteran fisheries biologist Don Peters to investigate the river’s fisheries and hire Ron Pierce to help lead the field work. Decades of team work & leadership by this Dream Stream Team were essential to the rebirth of the Blackfoot River as a healthy river.

This visionary team realized that the river’s tributaries must be rehabilitated and that landowners must be key partners in revitalizing the river. In 1989 Don published a story in Montana Outdoors magazine calling for rehabilitation of spawning tributaries by improving grazing & irrigation practices and cleaning up old mines. The story was titled ‘The Blackfoot Challenge’. And it helped give birth to that famed organization of citizens, businesses, government agencies and nongovernment groups. The Challenge raised millions of dollars for watershed conservation, and continues to involve the community in river restoration.

Funding restoration projects was easier than funding studies spanning decades to evaluate the efficacy of the projects. Ron combined funding from many sources to ensure restoration work was evaluated and published. The Blackfoot River Restoration Project is among the best documented restoration projects anywhere, and the results are used throughout the western states. Ron teamed with geomorphologist Dr. David Rosgen to ensure that project design was based on the best science. Ron initiated water leases and other instream flow projects. He maintained long-term fish population and temperature monitoring throughout the basin. This work helped direct native trout habitat conservation dollars to the Chamberlain Creek watershed which now supports the most productive cutthroat trout spawning stream in the Blackfoot.

The Blackfoot River Restoration Project is acclaimed as one of the finest examples of “grassroots” conservation with most projects on private land. These efforts rely on good communication skills to convey complex concepts to sometimes skeptical land owners. A key practice pioneered in the Blackfoot was screening irrigation ditches in bull trout spawning streams to reduce mortality. The river’s North Fork has emerged as a key “core area” population for bull trout (an ESA listed species) as a result of this practice.

Ron & Don contributed to remedial efforts at the Mike Horse Mine state superfund site that leaked heavy metals into the Blackfoot’s headwaters for decades. Don helped identify the movement of heavy metals down the river and up the food web. Putting his job on the line, Don fought the McDonald Gold mining project near Lincoln. Ron built on these findings with additional data, which ultimately led to a Natural Resource Damage Claim and the clean-up of the Mike Horse mine. Remedial efforts wrapped up in 2021, but the site will need perpetual care. As will the entire Blackfoot watershed. Don and Ron worked to help the watershed adapt to changing climate by proposing removal of non-native fish in the headwaters and replacing them with native fish. And they contributed to the education & inspiration of future conservationists by mentoring students.

The Dream Stream Team reminds us that Watershed Keeping is forever!

By Vicki Watson

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