Conserving Cottonwoods along Montana's Rivers

The spring floods of 2011 wreaked havoc on the properties of many Montana landowners and agricultural producers. After the floodwaters receded and property damages were assessed, many landowners noticed cottonwood tree seedlings sprouting from new sediment deposits and washed-out hay and crop fields. The seedlings also formed a thick carpet along large stretches of the Milk, Musselshell, Yellowstone, and Missouri Rivers.

Cottonwood regeneration of this magnitude is extremely uncommon along Montana's rivers. Most of the state's cottonwood forests are approximately the same age due to the lack of cyclical flood events. For a new community of cottonwoods to become established, exposed soil and silt deposits are required to promote seed germination. Riparian wetland loss, dams, channel alteration, and other landscape changes have made Montana's rivers less likely to overflow their banks, depositing the necessary sediment in the floodplain to promote cottonwood regeneration.

Ducks Unlimited worked closely with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and landowners along several river systems to protect this new crop of cottonwood seedlings through conservation easements and the Farm Bill's Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). Three years later, some of the cottonwoods now stand 10 feet tall.

Cottonwood stands protect riverbanks from erosion, slow and absorb floodwaters, improve water quality by capturing nutrients, and provide habitat for wildlife. Approximately 150 bird species, including waterfowl, benefit from cottonwood habitats in Montana.