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Advocates say even small development damages sensitive Montana ecology

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Mark Moran

(Big Sky Connection) New research by ecology experts in Montana showed even small amounts of development can cause a widespread decline in stream biodiversity.

It does not take a new high-rise, bridge construction or freeway to have major effects on Montana's sensitive river and stream ecosystem.

Michael Sprague, founder and CEO of Livingston-based Trout Headwaters, said even small projects affecting less than 2 percent of a developed watershed cause significant loss of biodiversity in sensitive areas, and is especially harmful to aquatic life. It is evident in a number of ways. 

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"Diminishing vegetation, or peeling off topsoil or allowing excess erosion to occur on a site or some of these other things," Sprague explained.

Sprague added there are more chemicals winding up in rivers and streams now, too, which is also having a negative impact on waterway ecology.

Sprague argued even small roads and trails can have a major effect on biodiversity in Montana's waterways, often because roads are the first sign of development in ecologically sensitive areas.

"First of all, how is the road constructed? Is it stable? Is it eroding?," Sprague outlined. "Maybe you bisected a travel corridor for a species. Maybe you ran through some critical habitat or pushed that species off as a result of the road. Maybe that human access now by itself is causing migration."

Road building and development on environmentally sensitive lands remains an issue across the Plains states, where the ecology of rivers and streams is threatened, including on American Indian reservations.