Headwaters Restoration

The Yaak Valley Forest Council began the Headwaters Restoration Partnership in 1999 as a rehabilitation and restoration project to improve habitat for native fish species in the Yaak River watershed. Over twenty years later, our Headwaters Program has expanded to include Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) testing and prevention, non-invasive genetic testing for fish species distributions, weed abatement and noxious weed removal along the Yaak River, large-scale road decommission and road-to-trail conversions, water quality monitoring of the Yaak River watershed, and sediment source identification and removal.

As we work to enhance and preserve the Yaak’s precious aquatic resources, our partnership with federal and state agencies and the greater Yaak Valley community grows stronger every year. Our project partners include the U.S. Forest Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, other local conservation groups, local businesses, and volunteers passionate about protecting and preserving native fish habitat in the wild Yaak.

We are taking steps to expand the effectiveness of the program,working to bring our efforts across the border into the British Columbia portion of the Yaak. The main stem of the river originates in Canada (as the Yahk River) and the West Fork starts in the U.S., flows into Canada, and then flows south again across the border. Working with conservation groups and ministry biologists north of the border is a priority. We need to make sure that our efforts are duplicated in Canada so that the river is preserved and restored for future generations.

Headwaters Online Database

Pardon the interruption in access – the Headwaters Online Database is currently under maintenance. Be sure to visit the Headwaters Database when we’ve completed needed updates.

The Headwaters Database is where land managers, conservationists, and the public can openly access, download, and use a live-mapping tool to view our long-term sediment source inventory database.

Research and Restoration

To address sediment loading from road runoff, the Yaak Valley Forest Council’s initial efforts in culvert replacement within Columbia River redband trout habitat have since expanded to years of successful and ongoing collaborative field monitoring and habitat restoration.

We conduct sediment source surveys to identify, remove, or restore roads and trails that are rapidly eroding and releasing harmful levels of sediment into the Yaak River watershed. Sediment overload damages native fish habitat in the Yaak and threatens species of concern in Montana such as bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout, and Columbia River redband trout. Our work directly improves watershed conditions to support healthy native trout populations.

Our Headwaters field crew has surveyed over six hundred miles of streams in the Yaak River watershed, decommissioned roads, and converted roadways into maintained scenic trails. As we strive to find solutions for sustainable native fish habitat, we have installed eighteen stream temperature monitors in key Yaak streams to measure changes in water temperature over time. The data collected by the Headwaters crew may hold answers to the long-term health of local watersheds during a time of rapid climate change.

The Yaak River.

Monitoring Montana's Waters

Monitoring Montana Waters (MMW) is a program hosted by the Flathead Lake Biological Station, providing scientific expertise and guidance to watershed monitoring groups. Working to help better understand and protect the world-renowned waters of Montana by providing assistance for increased information and understanding through monitoring efforts. Through the MMW program, the Yaak Valley Forest Council’s goals are to:

  • Establish a baseline of current water quality in the Yaak River and its main tributaries.
  • Analyze variation in water quality between sites based on differences in surrounding land use, road density, and distance to nearest human habitation.
  • Combine water quality data with long term thermograph data to build a regional climate relevant database towards future conservation efforts aimed at addressing effects of climate change in the Yaak watershed.


Click here to see an interactive map of water quality monitoring sample sites.

Stream Temperature Monitoring (Thermographs)

Climate change in the Yaak will cause a shift from snow-based to rain-based precipitation and increase temperatures to 3.4 degrees celsius (or 6 degrees Fahrenheit) on average by 2080. These changes can critically affect snowpack, change the timing and volume of seasonal runoff, result in watershed acidification, increase the occurrence of harmful algal blooms, and change fish species distributions and population viability.

To address these concerns and better understand how climate change affects the Yaak River watershed, the Yaak Valley Forest Council collects climate-relevant data from thermographs strategically placed in streams and waterways throughout the wild Yaak. The Yaak Valley Forest Council uses this data to guide conservation priorities and advocate for a healthy Yaak River watershed and native-fisheries in the wild Yaak.

Thermograph Measuring in Yaak
Thermographs in use.
A sculpin swimming in a Yaak stream.
The Yaak Valley Forest Council conducted a preliminary investigation of our ten-year thermograph dataset that shows tributaries of the Yaak River flowing through intact forests retain a stable temperature year-round. Because of this stability, Yaak Valley streams are more resilient to climate change as water temperatures increase over time and will continue to provide cold-water habitat for native trout and water-dependent land-based species long into the future.

Native Fish Habitat

The Yaak Valley Forest Council believes Healthy streams and streamside riparian areas are important assets that provide high-quality fish habitat and a reliable source of clean water. Our work focuses on increasing the long-term viability of local fish populations and restoring the health, integrity, and productivity of streams and tributaries within the Yaak River watershed.

Native Westslope Cutthroat Trout
A Westslope Cutthroat Trout, native to the area.
Coeur d'Alene salamander
Coeur d'Alene Salamander (Plethodon idahoensis).

Environmental DNA (eDNA)

From testing water for salamanders, paw prints in the snow for carnivores, air for bats, to streams for trout, eDNA offers a powerful conservation tool for mapping the occurrence and location of sensitive species. The Yaak Valley Forest Council uses eDNA to examine the risk of hybridization between westslope cutthroat and redband rainbow trout in the Yaak River watershed. We partner with the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station and MT Fish Wildlife and Parks to identify priorities and tailor our sampling methods. Our work will direct habitat restoration priorities and aid future conservation efforts to repopulate at-risk trout populations in the wild Yaak.

Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS)

Be it boat hulls, fishnets, or the soles of your waders, aquatic invasive species will cling to any surface and can wreak havoc on native species in our local waterways. The Yaak Valley Forest Council, in partnership with the Upper Columbia Lakes Network, is working hard to increase AIS awareness and prevent AIS invasion. Our AIS program responds to the ever-growing presence of invasive aquatic species and the growing recreational usage of Yaak water systems by actively testing for and preventing the spread of AIS in the Yaak Valley and Lincoln County.

Yaak River Bank
A Forest Council member at the site of a river bank restoration project.

Private Land Restoration

The Yaak Valley Forest Council has performed bank stability surveys on the Yaak River, using a Bank Erosion Hazard Index (BEHI) to assess the severity of erosion and identify areas in danger of collapse. We are using the BEHI data to contact landowners and work with them to secure funding for restoration projects on private land.

These private-land owner partnerships have brought over a million dollars of habitat restoration funding into Lincoln County. The majority of funding pays residents who have been trained by our project partners to conduct fieldwork and accomplish restoration goals in the Yaak River watershed.

For more information contact the Headwaters Program Manager, Anthony South.

Invasive Weeds

The Yaak Valley Forest Council works hard to eradicate invasive and noxious weeds in the Yaak River watershed, targeting Canada thistle, hawkweed, knapweed, oxeye daisy, and St. John’s-wort. Our field crews use only non-toxic methods, including vinegar-based spray, hand pulling, and native grass seed planting. We aim to drastically reduce weed invasions while simultaneously protecting native fish and the wild Yaak’s pristine headwaters from toxic chemicals.

Yaak Valley Weed Abatement
Weed abatement in the Upper Ford area of the Yaak Valley.