View from the Dutchman Wetlands — credit: Karen Nelson
A few miles north of Anaconda, Montana, a newly restored landscape is home to a wide range of the state’s native plants and wildlife.
Many unique species of fish, birds, mammals, and vegetation now thrive throughout this expansive wetlands area. These include some rare plants like the Indian paintbrush, and wedge-leaf saltbush, as well rare marsh birds, such as Virginia rail. The Dutchman encompasses over 3,000 acres of land, making it the largest remaining wetland habitat in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin.
Lesser Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja exilis) — credit: Larry Urban
There are a few short trails featuring the calming sounds of nearby streams and the stunning views of Pintler Wilderness alongside the wetlands area. This serene environment provides an opportunity to experience and appreciate Montana’s natural beauty.
Trail and perimeter fence near Dutchman Pond Access Area—credit: Karen Nelson
Thanks to recent efforts by the Atlantic Richfield Company (AR), overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the improved area is open to the public to explore and enjoy.
The Dutchman restoration project was an endeavor to compensate for injuries to migratory birds from wetland habitats lost at the Opportunity Ponds area of the Anaconda Smelter NPL Site. Enhancement of the Dutchman wetlands is meant to offset the permanent loss of wetland habitat and nesting habitat for migratory birds.
The Anaconda Smelter began operations in 1902 on Smelter Hill, generating over 30 million gallons per day of waste water and tailings slurry that was then transferred into the 700 acre Anaconda Ponds and 3,400 acre Opportunity Ponds. Areas where the waste ponds were placed originally consisted of a combination of wetland, lowland, and upland habitats. Disposal at the Opportunity Ponds ceased in 1980 when the Anaconda Smelter closed, leaving behind approximately 146 million cubic yards of accumulated waste material, some of which was toxic to local vegetation.
Through a series of assessments, federal and state officials discovered high concentrations of metals and arsenic and their detrimental effects included impacts to wetland ecosystems. Larger impacts from the site resulted in entire populations of fish and other aquatic life, either severely reduced or wiped out completely in local streams and rivers. The toxicity of the tailings to plants in the Opportunity Ponds and the complete coverage of the 3,400 acres of wetlands at the Opportunity Ponds with mining waste resulted in the loss of a large area of bird nesting habitat. The absence of nesting habitat resulted in reduced migratory bird reproduction in the area.
After reaching a settlement in 1999, documented in the Streamside Tailings Operable Unit Consent Decree, AR agreed to create, restore, or enhance the equivalent of 400 acres of restored wetlands in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin. The restoration and management of the Dutchman wetlands were undertaken to fulfill this commitment.
Atlantic Richfield completed a comprehensive assessment of the area in 2005 to determine the current state of the wetlands, and how they might be improved.
In addition to being impacted by smelter emissions, the Dutchman wetlands had also deteriorated for other reasons. Surrounded mostly by range land and irrigated agricultural fields. Previous owners of the Dutchman heavily grazed the wetlands, trampling down natural vegetation and eroding the terrain prior to purchase by AR.
Wet meadow vegetation — credit: Karen Nelson
In 2008, AR installed a perimeter fence around the wetlands to stop cattle from adjacent ranches grazing the wetland, allowing the beaten down vegetation to recover.
The wetlands have drawn attention by botanists, and plant surveys on the Dutchman and discovery of rare plants resulted in the designation as an Important Plant Area within Montana Native Plant Society’s Important Plant Areas Program. Important Plant Areas support an exceptional population of one or more globally rare plants or an exceptional assemblage of rare or threatened plants in Montana.
Today, the Dutchman Wetlands continue to flourish under the monitoring and management by AR. Recent improvements to the location have created more enticing recreation opportunities for the public.
The Dutchman wetlands now feature two new public access points to reach the trails, informational kiosks to learn more about the wetlands, and a bird species checklist to take on hikes (https://www.cerc.usgs.gov/orda_docs/CaseDetails?ID=985). Of the 433 bird species documented as occurring in the state of Montana, 123 of these species have been observed at the Dutchman wetlands, and approximately 90 species are known to breed on-site.
These 123 bird species are found in 35 families and include such rarities as Long and short-eared owls, sandhill cranes, and sora. There have been 20 species of waterfowl, seven species of warblers, and 10 species of sparrows found in these secluded, pristine, wetlands all with a few minutes’ drive of Butte, Anaconda and Deer Lodge. If you want to hear a rail’s “pig-like grunt” calls from the cattails, while Wilson snipe “winnow” above your head, this is the place to experience.
If you’re interested in visiting the Dutchman Wetlands, consider using the attached map for directions or use the directions provided below. You can learn more about the history of the site and restoration at DOI’s case document library.
Dutchman Pond Trailhead (20 Minutes, 11.8 miles)
From Interstate-90, take Exit 208 and travel on MT-1 North toward I-90 Frontage Road for 5.5 miles. Turn right onto MT-48 North and travel for 0.3 miles. Turn left onto Galen Road and travel for 4.5 miles. Turn right on Makenna Lane and travel 1.0 miles. Make one last right turn onto an unnamed road and travel for 0.8 miles. Look for Kiosk and parking lot.
Highway 48 Trailhead (10 minutes, 10 miles)
From Interstate-90, take Exit 208 and travel on MT-1 North toward Interstate-90 Frontage Road for 5.6 miles. Turn right onto MT-48 North and travel for 4.3 miles until seeing the Highway 48 trailhead on the left.