Photo courtesy of Montana Department of Agriculture

On the Endecott Ranch near Ennis, cows are No. 1. From their first breath, Janet Endecott’s Red Angus and Herefords receive the best of everything.

“We’re very particular about how we work our cows,” says Janet. “In order to keep them happy and healthy, you need good land and water.”

The nexus for happy and healthy on Janet’s property is South Meadow Creek, which meanders through the ranch’s pastures.

Over many years, the cows’ unimpeded activity had worn down the stream banks, churned up sediment and decimated the vegetation.

“When you’ve got more than 200 cows watering in one area, it can cause quite a bit of damage,” she says. “I knew something needed to be done, but I didn’t know exactly what that was.”

In 2010, Sunni Heikes-Knapton, watershed coordinator for the Madison Conservation District (MCD) launched a new project, funded by a grant from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, to assess irrigation diversion structures on the stream.

Pat Clancey, a fisheries biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, lent his expertise, identifying several irrigation diversions, which prevented the brook and brown trout from moving upstream.

Photo via pixabay.com

He assessed the creek’s shallow stream bottom, eroded banks, sedimentation and lack of streamside vegetation, and suggested some habitat improvements.

“Those rich soils are more prone to impacts from livestock, but a site like that is also very recoverable,” Clancey says. “It was a great opportunity to turn the situation around.”

After brief hesitation, Janet agreed to follow Heikes-Knapton and Clancey’s suggestions. The stream corridor was fenced on each side to create a riparian pasture, from which her cows could drink for a short time in the fall. Instead of relying solely on the creek, the cows used water tanks. The creek and its banks began to rebound within a year and plants Janet had never seen before were flourishing.

Despite Janet and Bob’s concerns about the water tanks freezing in the winter, they weathered the sub-zero temperatures, and gave the cattle easier access to the water, instead of them jockeying for a place along the creek.

“There’s water any time they want, so they water more regularly,” Janet says.

The tanks also eliminated some hard physical labor for Janet, no longer requiring her to chop a hole in the ice for the cattle to water in the dead of winter.

Photo by Brian McCord/Farm Flavor Media

Without constant visits from the cows, South Meadow Creek is restoring itself. The trout now flourish in the deep pools and the vegetative growth on the banks has halted the erosion.

Across Montana, Conservation Districts like the Madison CD work at the local level to promote and implement projects that benefit vital natural resources. One of the greatest assets for CDs is their grassroots organization. In a rural community, it’s far easier to trust someone you or your friends and neighbors know.

Janet Endecott persuaded her brother to launch a similar project on nearby Moore’s Creek. Janet also encourages her neighbors to consider taking similar steps.

“If a lot of people do one small thing to make the stream better where it flows through their place, it can make a huge difference,” she says.

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