A Wetland Oasis: Warm Springs WMA
It’s a bit of a surprising location, just off of I-90, not far from Butte. For some reason I don’t expect to find a remarkable wetland habit and birding area bordering one of Southwest Montana’s busiest thoroughfares. But, that’s Montana for you. Incredible biodiversity everywhere, even in the most unlikely of places. The Warm Springs Wildlife Management Area is a haven for birds (and therefore birders) of all kinds, from migratory snow geese to shorebirds and hawks, the Area is the perfect place to while away a few hours. And it is so accessible that it can even be a pit stop on a road tip, or an early morning excursion before one of Butte’s many festivals.
The area was not always this delightful oasis. Even a few decades ago it was not a place you would have wanted to visit, even if you could. The WMA is downstream of Butte and Anaconda, where the Silver Bow and Warm Springs creeks converge to form the Clark Fork River. As you no doubt know, nearly a century of mining and smelting operations in Butte, Anaconda, and the surrounding area devastated the waterways of the Clark Fork drainage and left behind toxic levels of heavy metals. What is now the Warm Springs WMA has been a Superfund site since the 1980s and the target of intense cleanup efforts. These efforts have been an extraordinary success. In 2006, fish were reported in Warm Springs Creek for the first time in 100 years. Today the area boasts a healthy and growing population of trout, including monster Westslope Cutthroats.
The Anaconda Settling Ponds are a series of carefully designed ponds to trap toxic sediment and filter the water, leaving the Clark Fork pure as it flows through the Warm Springs WMA. The restoration of the area has created rich wetland habitat and one of the best birdwatching sites in the region. The WMA is just off of I-90, exit 201. It is full of good walking trails, and most of the waterways are open to non-motorized boating.