Willow Creek Preserve

Active Investment
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Location: Montana
Acquired: 2019
Sale: TBD/In-Progress

Value Creation

Wetland Restoration, River/Creek Restoration, Upland Habitat, Regenerative Agriculture, Hazardous Material / Chemical / Other Cleanup

Conservation Impact

Climate Change Mitigation, Climate Change Adaptation, Regenerative Agriculture

Located just minutes from the small, quiet community of Willow Creek, Montana, Willow Creek Preserve is just far enough from Three Forks and Bozeman to feel a world of its own, yet still conveniently close for all necessities. Willow Creek itself (referred to as “Philosopher’s River” by Lewis and Clark) winds through the heart of the property for two miles. Outside the riparian area are farmed fields, producing alfalfa and sainfoin for the regenerative agricultural operation and barley and wild bird food for beer drinkers and pheasants, geese, cranes, turkeys and the like. Beyond, mountain ranges in every direction draw the eye, a reminder of why they call this region “Big Sky Country.”

The Project

The Challenge

The ranch suffered heavily from systematic exploitation and degradation of the natural landscape. For over five decades, its wetlands had been drained, springs filled and vegetation removed in order to make room for more cattle and cropland. Eventually, the Department of Environmental Quality stepped in to issue a citation for operating as a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) without a permit. Overgrazed and overfarmed, the creek was literally falling apart — the banks collapsing, and the channel losing its natural, healthy curvature. The creek was also contaminated, both from overcapacity of stock animals, and the ranch owner’s septic pipe which dumped directly into Willow Creek itself. In addition, during due diligence, we discovered a ranch dump on the property, half the size of a football field and 12’ deep.

The Solution

Willow Creek Ranch exemplifies the successful transition from an atrophied state of overuse and damage, to a thriving, beautiful wildlife preserve. This heavily-degraded agricultural farm, once an overcrowded cattle operation with a contaminated creek, is being transformed, restored, and returned to a sustainable natural balance. The dump has been cleaned up and remediated. Two miles of creek have been restored, along with several acres of wetland. Portions of farm fields have been removed from annual crop production and replanted with native grasses for wildlife habitat. The finished ranch will be an extremely unique and valuable property, a dream for any fisherman or upland bird and waterfowl hunter.

The History

Since the mid-1900s, virtually all the ranch’s natural vegetation had been stripped, poisoned, burned, or otherwise removed in an effort to stretch the capacity of agricultural operations. With cattle and manure where grass, willows, and trees had once been, the creek suffered, along with all the native wildlife that depended on it. Creek banks caved in, the channel straightened, deep portions of the creek filled in with sediment, and water temperatures shot up. With seemingly few options for the property beyond farming, various owners drained wetlands and springs to make more land available for farming. The ranch was issued a legal citation in 2002 as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), operating without a permit. The overcapacity of cattle had led to creek contamination — and in addition, the owner of the ranch had been running the septic pipe from his home directly into Willow Creek.

The Future / Our Impact

Restoration and management of these ranchlands will have a meaningful impact on not just the ranch itself, but also its wild inhabitants, and the larger ecosystem and climate. The creek and wetland restoration work is expected to increase water flows and provide cooler water temperatures, while creating nearly two miles of wild trout habitat where virtually none existed. The wetland restoration will allow these areas to act as natural reservoirs for the watershed, steadily releasing purified, cool water throughout the year instead of a flood-like rush during spring runoff. The creek and wetland work will be coupled with a massive revegetation effort through the bottomland, riparian habitat, and agricultural fields.

These changes are all crucial to mitigating climate change and providing wildlife with vital habitat, helping them adapt to a changing climate. Trout Unlimited and the State of Montana believe that these positive effects on wildlife and climate will be felt throughout the Willow Creek system and further downstream into the Jefferson River system. Wildlife ranging from amphibians to waterfowl and raptors will likely benefit from our restoration efforts.

Willow Creek Preserve Areas of Value Creation

Wetland Restoration

We are carefully restoring drained wetlands, ponds, and springs, which function both as wildlife habitat and support the ecosystem’s healthy watershed.

River/Creek Restoration

By restoring old channels, narrowing and deepening the creek, adding woody debris, and vegetating the creek banks, we are re-establishing an important riparian corridor where none exists today. 

Upland Habitat

We are shifting from wall-to-wall farm production to sustainable farm production integrated with wildlife habitat.

Hazardous Material / Chemical / Other Cleanup

We removed several derelict ranch buildings, shored up the other structures and cleaned tons of material – including a firetruck and innumerable appliances – out of the ranch dump.

Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture will be practiced for the benefit of the land and wildlife, rather than purely to maximize agricultural productivity. The ranch’s acreage remaining as cropland is transitioning to sustainable and/or organic farming methods and serves as home for a regenerative grazing operation.