A controversial and repeatedly delayed Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks plan to build a fish barrier on French Creek, clear the drainage, and restock the streams with native species has hit another snag after no one bid to build the dam earlier this fall.
That means the agency will not be able to begin construction before winter sets in, as it had planned.
Not to be deterred, FWP has already put the project out to bid again and plans to open sealed bids on Nov. 28 at 3 p.m. In the meantime, on Wednesday, Nov. 14, the agency will host a pre-bid walk-through of the site for interested parties.
The estimated cost of the project is $230,000.
According to FWP Project Manager Kevin McDonnell, the agency attributes the lack of response to the earlier call for bids to contractors being “booked up” and “unable (to) mobilize” by the Sept. 5 deadline for proposals.
While the agency aims to begin to work on the project this spring, the timing could pose problems, McDonnell noted.
“That will obviously have to go hand in hand (with) spring runoff,” he said. “So we’re going to have to work around the water there.”
And John Gordon, who lives in one of the two houses closest to the barrier site and who has been among the project’s many vocal critics, says that the problems posed by snow melt could complicate the agency’s plan.
“If they start in the spring and we get a snow year like we had last year, they’re going to have nothing but a mess,” Gordon says. “There’s a lot of drainages that drain into there. I hope they don’t do it.”
But according to Paul Valle, FWP’s design and construction manager, the contractor that is ultimately selected to build the barrier would likely begin construction after high water, probably in July. Once work begins, the FWP contract stipulates that the barrier should be completed within 60 days.
Even if bids come in and the barrier is completed on time, though, FWP fish biologist Jim Olsen — who has been working on the French Creek project for years — says the work of clearing the drainage with rotenone, a naturally occurring fish poison, likely will not start until the summer of 2020.
Other than delaying the project's start, Olsen said the “the only hang-up” that resulted from lack of bids in September had to do with funding.
“We had to get some grants extended, but that all seems to be coming together,” Olsen said.
Once the fish poisoning starts, it will likely take two treatments over two summers to clear the drainage, according to Eileen Ryce, FWP fisheries division administrator — but it could take longer.
Once that process is complete, the work of restocking streams with westslope cutthroat trout and other native aquatic species will begin, meaning it will be years before anglers are able to begin fishing the new, native fishery in the French Creek drainage.
But observers of the project are accustomed to delays.
FWP began laying its plans to create a native fishery in the drainage nearly a decade ago. Since that time, the agency has produced an environmental assessment and some supplementary analysis, held a pair of heated public meetings, received about 65 formal comments, and hit the pause button multiple times to respond to concerns.
While Gordon and his fellow critics have slowed the plan down, they haven’t been able to stop it, much to their chagrin.
“I’m glad it’s delayed, but it bothers you that they just keep trying every way they can to do it,” Gordon said.
Ryce says the agency will indeed keep pushing to the finish line, even while acknowledging that “these things never seem to go according to schedule.”
“Our desire would be, once the barrier’s in place, to keep things moving as quickly as possible,” Ryce said.