A highly contested and repeatedly delayed plan to clear the French Creek drainage with fish poison and restock it with native species took a big step forward Tuesday, when Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks decided to accept a bid from Anaconda-based R&S Johnson Construction to build a fish barrier along the creek.
But it will be a costly step forward.
According to Eileen Ryce, FWP’s fisheries division administrator, the $334,650 bid FWP accepted was more than $100,000 over the engineer’s initial estimated project cost of $230,000.
And the agency had to put up 10 percent more than Johnson Construction’s bid as contingency for possible cost overruns, meaning the true amount the agency needed to secure to for the barrier was about $370,000, which was $50,000 more than FWP had set aside.
According to FWP Design and Construction Supervisor Paul Valle, an important factor in the inflated cost was tariffs on steel, which have increased the cost of rebar needed for the barrier.
The barrier is crucial for the project, as it will prevent non-native species from moving back into the drainage after existing fish populations are killed off with rotenone, a naturally occurring fish poison, and westslope cutthroat trout and other native species are stocked in the streams.
Ryce celebrated the progress.
“So much time and effort has gone into it (the project) that it’s nice to see it getting done,” Ryce said.
But John Gordon, who lives in one of the two houses nearest the barrier site, was disappointed to find out the project will move forward.
Calling the agency's planned use of rotenone an example of "do as I say not as I do," Gordon said, "I just think it’s wrong that fish and game should be exempt from (regulations prohibiting) poisoning water.”
FWP has been planning to restore native species to French Creek, which is located near Wise River, for about a decade, during which time the agency has conducted an environmental assessment and some supplementary analysis, held a pair of heated public meetings and received more than 60 formal comments.
As for the barrier component of the project, it was put out to bid twice before the agency accepted Johnson Construction’s proposal this week.
The first time FWP unsealed bids for the project, in September 2017, it received two proposals that were both over budget. When the agency bid the project this September, no one bid on it.
After unsealing bids on Wednesday, Nov. 28, Ryce said the agency had to ensure it could come up with the extra $50,000 or so it needed to move the project forward. She said FWP found those funds in the agency’s Future Fisheries Improvement Program and an agency mitigation account.
Now that the money is secured and the bid has been accepted, Ryce said the project can move into its “final phase.”
A call to Johnson Construction was not immediately returned on Tuesday, but Valle said he anticipates the firm will begin construction of the barrier after spring runoff, perhaps in July.
The FWP contract for the project stipulates that the barrier should be completed within 60 days.
The work of clearing the drainage is expected to begin in 2020 and will likely take at least two years to complete. The agency also expects the work of restocking the streams with native species and reopening the drainage to anglers will be a multi-year process.
Noting the project's long timeline, Mark Thompson, president of the Butte-based George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, reacted to news that a barrier bid had been accepted by saying, "That's great news that we're finally moving forward."