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Field Program

[Image Description: Two MCC members taking a brief break; one is sitting on a rock, the other is standing nearby. They are both in their uniforms, looking out at the expansive, mountain view surrounding them.]

Bucket Girl

A crew builds a beaver dam analog in a small stream, under a bright blue sky.

It was only a four-hour drive from Helena to Winnett, and already the prairie had snuck up on me. As my region’s Senior Crew Lead that primarily worked on the Montana-Idaho border with chainsaws last year, the quick transition from rocky, sandy loamy soils to the soft saturated alluvial soils was shocking. In the rearview mirror, I could still see jagged outcroppings of the Judith and Little Snowy ranges, presenting themselves through the storm clouds as almost hazy and familiar apparitions. Seeming close at times but I knew nearly 45 miles of soft rolling plains separated me from the comfort and familiarity of the mountains.

This was not my first time in Central Montana, however, it was my first time in the area not on a chainsaw crew. I had been called to fill in for two of our leads that were using their vacation time and each of them ran one of Central Divide’s two BDA Crews. BDA stands for “beaver dam analogs”. These crews work with various project sponsors such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) & Winnett Agricultural Community Enhancement and Sustainability (ACES) who put our BDA crews in touch with ranchers and other local landowners that need stream restoration work completed. Winnett, the county seat, is a small agricultural community of 211 people who make up roughly 40% of Petroleum County’s entire population. A fun fact that many in the community are rightfully proud of.

The Ranchers that we met are also proud of their land and our crews really enjoyed helping them with their goal of keeping water on the landscape. Our crews helped achieve this goal by building artificial beaver dams out of willows, pine branches, and medium-sized posts with copious amounts of mud and sod packed into them. Often times supported by a debris jam behind the dam to slow the oncoming water before hitting our dam downstream. Whoever’s job it was to haul buckets of sod and silt-mud was affectionately referred to as a “bucket girl.” This term is unofficially what the crews refer to each other if they tire of calling themselves “beavers.” These crews always kept things interesting and fun even during the hot days covered in mud and mosquitoes. 

The functional idea behind this model is a series of dams and obstructions working in a single stream system or drainage to help raise the water table, prevent scouring, and retain water on the landscape. In addition to these structures, we also tried to identify and remedy potential spots in the drainage that have “head-cuts” which lead to significant upstream scouring and erosion. This past hitch we even had the opportunity to build a fascine which is a series of woven fences we installed below an eroding cliff face in hopes to keep extra sediment out of the stream. This work was refreshingly pleasant for me since it echoed my childhood summers in Alabama and North Carolina where my siblings and I would build rock dams in an attempt to create pools to swim in.

Our Hitch was not without adversity, between getting stuck in the mud multiple times, and camping on the edge of a lake during a torrential seven-hour-long thunderstorm, there were a couple of days that we were not able to drive out to our worksites. To supplement our beaver work on those days, we worked in the courthouse moving furniture and cleaning out their upstairs floors. The sheriff and county commissioner worked with us those days and were extremely thankful to have eight young people moving some of the heavier shelves and drafting tables down two stories of stairs since the county courthouse is without an elevator. 

I really enjoyed getting the chance to lead the crews and be back on a full hitch. Our campsite featured a very full lake, an environmental anomaly for this time of year. But the increased rain and moisture provided a picturesque sunset over the lake nearly every evening. While I am comforted to be back in the mountains, I do miss the expanse of the plains, the hospitality of the town of Winnett, and tromping around in the mud trying to be a good beaver. In the end, I finally got to understand the hype around being a bucket girl. It is about providing a foundation and volume to a structure, a practice that the BDA crews carried to all aspects of their hitch. From building relationships with ranchers, building crew community, or listening to podcasts during drives on environmental issues that pertain to the work they do. We could all strive to be a bucket girl in our daily lives and it is a practice I will take with me as I visit other crews throughout the season.