EAST HELENA — Years of restoration work have reshaped the environment along Prickly Pear Creek, near East Helena and now, we’re getting a look at what impact that work is having on wildlife.
Last week, a team from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) got into the creek with a small barge, protective gear and an electrified probe.
They were “electrofishing” – using low-level electric shocks to stun fish, pick them up with nets, then count and measure them before releasing them back into the stream.
“The endgame being what we call a ‘catch-per-unit effort,’ which is number of fish per 100 meters,” said FWP fisheries biologist Adam Strainer. “That’s a good way for us to gauge each species, their abundance, their size structure.”
They found large numbers of brown and rainbow trout, as well as many smaller fish. The largest fish they found were well over 20 inches long.
Strainer says they began doing counts on this 0.8-mile stretch in 2019. Since then, the number of fish they’ve counted has increased each year. However, Strainer says just as important as the raw numbers are the specifics.
They reported a much higher percentage of rainbow trout this year, which he credits to projects downstream that have made it easier for them to pass. He’s also pleased to see a large number of younger trout, an indication that they’re successfully breeding and returning to this stretch.
Several years ago, the area was part of the ASARCO smelter site. After a century of industrial operations, the creek had been redirected from its original channel and much of the surrounding area was contaminated with hazardous substances.
In the last decade, though, organizations have come together to restore the site to a more natural state. They’ve reconstructed about 1½ miles of Prickly Pear Creek, bringing it closer to the original floodplain. Eight-foot-high willows are now growing along the banks.
“It’s really inspiring to come out here and see this restoration work that’s just taken off, literally,” said John Beaver, board president for Prickly Pear Land Trust. “I’ve worked on a lot of restoration projects and I’ve never seen willows come in this well, this fast.”
PPLT has now taken ownership of 243 acres along the creek, south of U.S. Highway 12, along with another 80 acres on the north side of East Helena. They will eventually develop the site into the East Helena Greenway.
“Prickly Pear’s goal here is to have trails and fishing access sites and public access,” said executive director Mary Hollow. “Our whole purpose for working with the community to reimagine this site is to help it be more available to the public and to youth and to families in the area.”
“Someday, there’ll be people out here fishing; they’ll be on bikes and little kids will be riding out here,” Strainer said. “It’ll be cool one day to just have the baseline data to say, ‘Here’s what it started at, and you’re catching those fish from the 2021 class that we monitored.’”
The Greenway property remains closed to the public for now. Hollow said their partner organizations are still doing construction, and some safety concerns remain.
She hopes they’ll be able to open the land south of Highway 12 within about two years, while reclamation work on the land north of Kennedy Park could be finished by the end of this year.
You can find more infomation about the Greenway project on PPLT's website.