The headwaters of O’Dell Creek in Madison Valley, Mont. serve as a perfect example of the benefits of implementing good conservation practices. Considered one of the largest wetland areas in Montana, O’Dell Creek was drained in the 1950s for land to raise livestock. But now, ranchers, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other partners are restoring the wetland.
Historically grazed all year, the O’Dell Creek and Madison River floodplain provided abundant forage, flowing water and refuge from harsh weather. Over the years, the draining and livestock uses took a toll.
“I could see the degradation,” said Jeff Laszlo, one of the owners of Granger Ranches LP — where the creek is located. “There was a decline in both the grass production of our river bottoms and the overall health of our riparian area. Although I really didn’t know what to do about it, I felt that there had to be a better way of managing and taking care of one of the ranch’s most important assets.”
That’s when he started working with NRCS and other conservation partners.
“Our only prior experience with NRCS was on more ranching-intensive projects, such as windbreaks, upgrading irrigation systems and reseeding fields,” Laszlo said. “We had never undertaken anything this resource-oriented as what was being proposed to restore O’Dell Creek and its associated wetlands.”
In 2012, Granger Ranches enrolled in NRCS’ Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program. As a part of the conservation easement, the agency financed 75 percent of the stream and wetland work, which included 5,000 feet of stream restoration, nearly 80 acres of wetland restoration and more than 9,000 feet of fencing. While the 2014 Farm Bill did change conservation easement programs, technical and financial assistance for wetlands restorations is still available through the wetland reserve easement component of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.
In addition to providing financial assistance for the restoration, NRCS established a site-specific management plan for the easement. The goals were to increase plant diversity, improve water quality and provide better habitat for fisheries and wetland-dependent wildlife species.
After years of work with NRCS and other conservation partners — including private, nonprofit and government entities — Laszlo is seeing results.
“The O’Dell restoration has been a tremendous success, even beyond what was initially hoped for,” he said. “The fish and wildlife response has been incredible. Bird species have increased 10 fold. Trumpeter swans have been introduced and are thriving. The fishery is healthier. Water quality has improved, and over 200 plant species have been identified including some very rare ones.
“These benefits flow with the water downstream. O’Dell Creek is an important tributary to the Madison River, and now it’s providing colder and cleaner water, an important resource that so many depend on or enjoy for recreation.”
Laszlo admits this project forced him to look at ranching differently. He now sees that in any agricultural operation, there must be a balance between agricultural operations and protecting and enhancing natural resources.
“As a rancher, I’ve learned that conservation and ranching are not mutually exclusive pursuits. In fact, to do either well you’d have to do them together,” he said. “I never anticipated how complex this project would be or how rewarding. I am thankful for all the great partners who have contributed so much, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service.”
This May, NRCS is celebrating American Wetlands Month by sharing the stories of landowners, like the Nelsons, who are working to restore wetlands.