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Game and Fish

Project to Improve Bolton Creek

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04/01/2011 - By Robin Kepple

If you traveled along the North Platte River west of Casper last summer, you probably noticed the water turned noticeably muddy downstream of the confluence with Bolton Creek. This small stream gushes down from the Shirley Rim and picks up large amounts of sediment along the way, finally dumping its load into the North Platte River.

Some sediment is normal in a stream but Bolton Creek's sediment load is excessive, and when all that dirt ends up in the North Platte River it can reduce fishing opportunities and impact wildlife habitat. Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologists are concerned that Bolton Creek has dropped below its natural flood plain. "This is probably one of the unhealthiest streams in Wyoming," said Keith Schoup, habitat biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's Casper Regional office.

A flood plain acts like a sponge, holding and releasing water slowly through seeps and springs. When a waterway becomes disconnected from its flood plain, flood waters cannot adequately dissipate energy and the water becomes a torrent. "It's like putting your thumb over part of the garden hose," Schoup said.

In September 2010, the WGFD set out to improve conditions on the stream through the Bolton Creek Riparian Restoration Initiative. The goal is to restore the riparian communities by reestablishing the stream channel on the existing floodplain, specifically along about 17 miles of stream that flow on a mixture of federal lands held by the Bureau of Land Management and private lands owned by the Garrett Ranch.

There are some remnant communities of cottonwood and willow along the stream but head-cuts have drained the adjacent floodplains, leaving several reaches of these communities high and dry. WGFD biologists opted for a natural fix to the problem– beaver. Historically, beaver lived along Bolton Creek but most left the area due to a lack of dam-building materials. So WGFD is lending them a hand by supplying the materials.

Crews cut down approximately 82,000 pounds of aspen from state lands on Muddy Mountain south of Casper. The aspen were removed from an area that needed regeneration as many of the existing trees are old and are being invaded by conifer trees. The Bolton Creek project provided an opportunity to remove old trees and let young aspen reestablish.

Beaver will eat the bark and small limbs of aspen, and will use larger limbs and trunks as building materials. Crews hauled the trees to the Bolton Creek area by truck, and then used a helicopter to locate the trees along the stream. The trees were tied in 500-pound bundles and the helicopter picked up the bundles and placed them near active beaver dam complexes along several miles of the stream.

About a month after the aspen were dropped, biologists returned to the area and reported that beaver were starting to build new dams and fortifying existing dam structures. "We're already seeing dams, which are storing water and which will eventually raise the water table," Schoup said. "The beaver are already starting the process of holding sediment."

Biologists should be able to determine how successful the beaver have been later this spring. Willow should return to much of the stream bank within a year or two; cottonwood trees will take a bit longer. "Beaver are probably the best solution for the problems on Bolton Creek," Schoup said. "They are Mother Nature's engineers."

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