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As construction continues to boom in Bozeman, conservation groups are advocating for the city to require restoration of lost wetlands.

Right now, the city and local developers compensate for wetlands lost to new construction by purchasing credits at certified wetland banks, all of which are outside of the Lower Gallatin Watershed. Federal law requires the mitigation, but it’s not been required to happen in the same watershed where the impact occurs.

Essentially, when Gallatin Valley loses wetlands and all of the associated ecological benefits, it doesn’t get any of the benefits from required mitigation.

Bozeman commissioners have identified wetlands preservation as a complicated issue and added it to their strategic plan. A few local conservation groups want to push the issue to the forefront.

The issue came up recently when city commissioners approved purchasing one-tenth of an acre from Upper Missouri Mitigation Bank near Twin Bridges to make up for impacts to wetlands caused by a city wastewater project.

It’s a fairly minor impact, said Chris Nixon, president of the Sacajawea Audubon Society, but at the rate that Bozeman is growing, the small impacts add up.

“There’s not one or any particular project. It’s like death by a thousands cuts,” Nixon said.

The Audubon Society also advocates that the city prevent further impacts to wetlands due to development, Nixon said. But the organization is pushing for a local wetland bank so that “when impacts cannot be avoided, at least then we’d have the mechanism to retain our resources in this immediate drainage,” he said.

The Audubon Society owns land that could potentially be used as a local mitigation bank — 32 acres of wetlands that were donated by developers Mike Delaney and Ileana Indreland last year. But it would require a partnership with the city, and for city regulations to require developers use it.

Wendy Weaver of Montana Aquatic Resources Services has been advocating for changes to the system for years. She said that although having a wetland mitigation bank in town is ideal, just having one within the same watershed is the goal. Without it, the watershed is losing the ecological services, like water filtration, that wetlands perform, she said.

Weaver said she’d like to know how the city plans to address this and what steps are needed to change the status quo.

Mayor Chris Mehl said the city commission has signaled to city staff that they want to explore this issue and the options they have to address it. In January, the commission ordered a study of what adjusting city rules to require wetland mitigation in the Lower Gallatin Watershed would look like.

Mehl said the commission could hear back from city staff on that sometime this summer. He said it will be critical to looking into both supplying a wetlands mitigation site and requiring use of it.

“Success means both sides of the equation are addressed,” Mehl said.

However, it’s going to take more time and research into the associated costs and legal barriers.

Pat Byorth, water director for Montana Trout Unlimited, has been working on wetland mitigation issues for years. He said wetlands play a vital role in ecological health.

“What it comes down to is that the wetlands that we’re sacrificing are the kidneys of our watershed,” Byorth said.

They soak up pollutants and break down contaminants, improving water quality. Many wildlife populations rely on wetlands for habitat. They also offer economic benefit, Byorth said, when natural wetland filters take the strain off man made water treatment technology paid for by taxpayers.

“The city and conservation organizations — if we partner together, we can experience a whole lot of benefit,” Byorth said.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.

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