Upper Deer Creek River Access

Ben Scott, 15, floats down the Gallatin River on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, at the Upper Deer Creek River access point.

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A project to restore a river access site and improve riparian habitat along the upper Gallatin River is set to begin Monday.

The Upper Deer Creek River Access Restoration Project will involve building a boat ramp, parking lot and fishing platform at a spot just upstream of the Deer Creek bridge and trailhead along Highway 191.

At the site, there are user-created dirt roads crisscross a grassy meadow and some pine trees skirting the Gallatin River. Just downstream, the Green Bridge connects U.S. Highway 191 with the Upper Deer Creek trailhead.

David Tucker, a Gallatin River Task Force spokesperson, called recreational use of the area “a free for all,” as use from rafting, fishing and hiking contributes to degradation. Adding a more established trail network and road will help reduce human pressure on vegetation, he said.

The Upper Deer Creek work is part of an ongoing, multi-partner effort to address recent concerns for the health of the river, Tucker said.

The area will be closed to vehicles until construction is completed, likely around Halloween, according to a news release from the Gallatin River Task Force. Work will not impact access to the Deer Creek trailhead nearby.

To restore riparian habitat damaged by use, partners from the Gallatin River Task Force, Trout Unlimited and the Custer Gallatin National Forest plan to plant native plants along the stream bank starting next spring.

They hope the new vegetation will reduce erosion along the bank, provide fish with shade and help keep water temperatures down.

Minimizing erosion could help limit nutrient debris that enters the water, said Jeff Dunn, the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone project manager for Trout Unlimited.

“It’s alright if one person walks down the stream bank, but it’s different when there are thousands doing it,” Dunn said. “There are way too many people in a small space.”

Nutrient loading is one of several factors contributing to annual algal blooms in the Gallatin River. Regular blooms can alter river ecosystems, contributing to deaths of juvenile fish and certain bug species, water monitoring specialists from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality said.

A 22-mile long algal bloom was detected along the Gallatin this August, according to Kristen Gardner, executive director of the Gallatin River Task Force.

The task force is providing the majority of the money for the Upper Deer Creek project, Tucker said. Trout Unlimited is providing additional funding and technical expertise, Dunn said.

The task force conducted a study in 2015 examining recreation at sites along the Gallatin River between Yellowstone National Park and Spanish Creek. It aimed to identify river access sites in need of work.

The task force completed its first restoration project in 2017 at the Moose Creek Recreation Area. The project involved stabilizing the stream bank, adding trails, fencing and interpretive signs, and building a boat ramp and kayak launch.

“We’re taking the Moose Creek model to the Deer Creek site,” Dunn said.

The two sites are the first of many along Gallatin Canyon the task force hopes to restore, according to Tucker. Though this spot was the obvious choice for a second project, other sites along the corridor face severe habitat degradation, he said.

“There’s a lot of recreational use, and it’s only going up,” he said. “We want to enhance access while improving habitat.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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