Castle Creek fencing project to protect stream, riparian zone from cattle

Rarely have I found the construction of a fence to be so inspiring.

So satisfying.

So hopeful.

From my spot amidst the waving green grasses and multi-colored wildflowers on a gentle rise above Castle Creek, I scanned the coming line of protection delineated with a string of stout wooden fence posts.

More wood will follow, transforming the line of posts into an attractive and, more importantly, efficient barrier against the heavy hooves of stock cows, those lumbering ruminants that can weigh 1,200 pounds or more and literally stomp the life out of a piece of landscape.

Especially a sensitive piece of landscape.

This is not meant to be an attack on cows. They are what they are. They do what they do. And I was part of the South Dakota beef industry growing up on our farm in Lyman County. Our cows and the calves they produced combined with an annual harvest of small grains to help keep a family on the land and eventually send five kids to college, and beyond.

Cows are part of my economic bloodline. Cows are also part of the multi-use philosophy that has marked the management of our national forests for generations.

And cows are destructive to natural habitats, wetlands, and streams in particular.

They can tear up a stream bank or a stream bed in a hurry, adding to erosion and degrading water quality in their most direct, immediate impact. Beyond that, and maybe even worse, they slog around in the riparian areas next to streams, damaging the vegetation in a crucial ecological transition zone between the water and the drier uplands.

Ah, riparian zones. We’ll consider them more in a moment. But first, the streams. It’s easy to see and understand the value of those glistening ribbons of water relentlessly working their way downhill toward larger streams and rivers and, eventually, of course, to the sea.

Streams are the subject of poems. And as I often do, I have to share a bit of one here.

Listen closely to what the stream has to say

It’s from Tennyson’s The Brook, in which the poet tries to speak for the stream: “I come from haunts of coot and hern, I make a sudden sally. And sparkle out among the fern, to bicker down the valley.”

We all know coots, of course. But herns? Tennyson was speaking of herons, those patient, long-legged predators that add beauty to a stream as well as danger to the lives of fish and frogs and other potential prey.

The sudden sally? That’s a rush of water that we might call a rapid or riffle or falls. And I love Tennyson’s choice of “bicker” to describe the louder voice of the stream as it flows more noisily down the valley.

Streams talk? Indeed, they do. You just have to stop and listen.

Rivers. Creeks. Streams. They’re the stuff of poetry.

And riparian zones? Yeah, not so much. But they are just as valuable, to streams and to the larger ecosystems through which streams flow.

The value of riparian zones is, perhaps, a bit harder to understand. Maybe that’s why they received less protection more than 50 years ago when the federal Clean Water Act was approved.

So before we get to the good-news fencing project along Castle Creek, it’s worth getting to know this crucial ecological connector, the riparian zone, at least a little bit.

The name “riparian” comes from the Latin “riparius,” meaning “bank” or “shore” or something along a river. That should not be confused with the capitalized Riparius, which is a tiny community along the upper reaches of the Hudson River in New York.

As you might expect, there is a small “r” riparian zone along the Hudson River as it runs through the capital “R” community of Riparius, and under the Riparius Bridge.

Riparius, New York was once called, naturally enough, Riverside. But that got confusing, because of other Riversides, including a community on Long Island in the Big Apple. So the powers who were at the time turned to the Latin version of Riverside, which I consider to be an improvement anyway.

Riparius is a fine name, with or without a capital “R.”

They’re good for streams, wildlife, and considering your place in things

And a riparian area is a fine place, an essential transitional zone along a stream or creek or river, or other water source. When in good shape, a riparian zone provides a critical connection between the water and the adjoining forest or prairie, or other ecological zones.

Thriving riparian zones offer a rich diversity of vegetation that sustains a complex food chain of aquatic and terrestrial creatures, as well as escape cover and a travel corridor for wildlife of all sizes. Riparian zones slow runoff, help reduce flooding, filter out sediment and pollutants, and help improve water quality.

So they stay busy, those under-appreciated zones, and highly productive.

Riparian zones are a great place to study plants, watch birds and other wildlife and consider the interconnectedness of the outdoors, and your place in it.

And, oh, they are very, very important to trout, which require clean, well-oxygenated water and the insects that live in that water and come from the adjoining vegetation. Trout also benefit from the shade provided by overhanging shrubs and trees and other plants, which offer cover from aerial predators and help keep the water cool.

There isn’t much creative writing about riparian zones. But you can find some here and there if you have a mind to look.

Some years back in an essay for a Massachusetts-based educational website called, author and environmental philosophy professor Kurt Heidinger wrote this about a riparian zone:

“It is a place we want to be, because it brims with exuberant sounds and smells, and because it often harbors wild plant populations that flower and fruit, attracting pollinators and all sorts of other creatures.

“In fact, when I think ‘riparian’ I think of food,” Heidinger continued. “The riparian zone is where the food is, and where the food is, life is. It is possible to trace this living landform from where it almost touches the sky all the way down to the sea.”

The riparian zone along Castle Creek below Deerfield Reservoir is only a tiny part of all that. But it’s an important part.

“Win-win” is a cliche: Even so, that’s what it is

And thanks to a cooperative project between the U.S. Forest Service, the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department, the Black Hills Fly Fishers, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the National Wild Turkey Federation, a 1.35-mile section of Castle Creek and adjoining riparian zone will receive vital protection from cattle grazing and the damage it causes.

The land belongs to the U.S. Forest Service. The cattle belong to a private rancher with a federal permit to graze the allotment.

“The cattle are on the area for a short duration of time. But during that time an area that is sensitive, such as a riparian area, can sustain damage it may take a long time to recover from,” says Kris Cudmore of GF&P. “Fencing the area off and allowing cattle into less-sensitive areas they can still water in is a win-win for the cattle, the fish, the wildlife and the riparian area.”

Castle Creek will receive that same protection its adjoining riparian zone receives, of course. A stretch of it will, at least. It’s an essential stretch, one admired and fished and worried over by me and many others who share a passion for trout and trout streams and the wild lands that adjoin them.

A fencing project that benefits trout will also benefit wild turkeys. And elk. And deer. And a multitude of wildlife species that do better when streams and riparian zones are protected.

“This area is a major fishery in the Black Hills, as well as in the heart of turkey and elk country,” Cudmore says.

The cooperating organizations “have come together as a team to preserve a large riparian area that is utilized by fish and wildlife, but will also allow the cattle to still water in key areas,” he says.

These things cost money, of course. And GF&P will be paying $70,000 of the overall $130,000 project cost. When I say GF&P, I mean folks like me and maybe like you who hunt and fish and pay for the privilege with our license and stamp fees.

Half of GF&P’s $70,000 comes from the agency’s Habitat Stamp fund, which comes from the sale of the required Habitat Stamp sold with hunting and fishing licenses. The other $35,000 comes from a GF&P habitat-fund raffle that sells tickets for chances at high-demand big-game licenses.

The Black Hills Fly Fishers chipped in $30,000, the Elk Foundation $20,000 and the Turkey Federation $10,000. Which is putting your money where your outdoor passions are.

The Forest Service is the cooperating landowner in the project, which is being celebrated by the participating non-governmental organizations.

A long time coming, but worth the wait

“It’s very exciting and something our Black Hills Fly Fishers have talked about on and off for years and years,” says Jeff Olson of Rapid City, a former chairman of the state GF&P Commission and a leader in sportsmen’s organizations, including the Fly Fishers. “It’s good for the stream and the fish and the wildlife, and it’s good for clean water. That’s the part that sometimes gets forgotten. This helps assure clean water for Rapid City, because that water ends up in Rapid City.”

Castle Creek eventually joins Rapid Creek above Pactola Reservoir. And releases from the reservoir into Rapid Creek flow down through forest and canyons and meadows into Rapid City and beyond to the Cheyenne River, then farther still to the Missouri.

In Rapid City, some creek water is taken directly into the city’s water-treatment plant. Other creek water seeps down through the creek bed above Rapid City into subsurface aquifers, where it is extracted by city wells.

There are wild trout populations throughout Castle Creek and Rapid Creek, from above Deerfield down through Rapid City to the point out near the east end of town where the water warms up too much for trout.

But now we’re getting into out-on-the-prairie stuff. Let’s go way back up into the hills near Deerfield to the Castle Creek project, which is closer to that “almost touches the sky” place that Kurt Heidinger wrote about.

The lower end of the fencing project is just upstream from the parking lot for the Kinney Canyon Walk-In Fishery, just off the Slate Prairie Road. The finished fence will have three wooden rails connecting the wooden posts, says Cudmore, who oversees the project for GF&P.

“This fence is wildlife friendly, and will have two gates for angler/hunter access,” Cudmore says. “Cattle are excluded from the 1.35 miles and will have to water on either end.”

Only one side of the stream and riparian zone needs the wood fencing. The other side is already protected by an existing barbwire fence.

A previous fencing project with three-rail wooden fence already protects a stretch of Castle Creek and its riparian zone in a meadow across Slate Prairie Road, downstream from the new fencing project. A stretch of Castle Creek that winds through a meadow between that existing fence and the one being built will remain open to cattle grazing.

I’d love to see that stretch of creek fenced out, too. But you can’t get everything. The cattle need water. The meadow offers a couple of less-sensitive areas for access. And multiple use is usually about compromise.

But the new fencing project will bring meaningful and long lasting protection, both to the stream and to the riparian zone that sustains it.

A guy could probably write a poem about that.

Maybe someday I will.

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