Montana Audubon

Montana Audubon works at the local, state and national policy levels to protect our natural heritage.

The Need for Stream Vegetative Buffers: What Does the Science Say?

Local governments are working to adopt stream protection measures at the city and county level in Montana. As these communities choose to adopt setbacks and vegetative buffers, local officials will consistently be asked to “show the science” behind their regulations.

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In order for setback regulations to effectively protect aquatic resources, a vegetated buffer is needed around wetlands and streams. This fact is supported by numerous scientific studies. As an example, scientific studies consistently show that vegetative buffers should be a minimum of 100 feet to protect water quality—no mater the size of the stream:

Setbacks_Eroding_Lawn“In order to protect the water quality of streams, scientific studies generally recommend that at least a 100-foot (30 meter) vegetated buffer be maintained. Steeper slopes and other local factors may require larger vegetated buffers. A minimum of a 50-foot (15-meter) buffer may be sufficient to protect certain aspects of water quality. However, for significant removal of nitrates, sediments, and pathogenic bacteria, at least 100 feet is recommended.” (see below)

In addition to water quality protection, stream vegetated buffers also protect our fisheries, as well as critical wildlife and wildlife habitat. For fisheries protection, at least 100 feet—and many times 300 feet—is recommended. In order to protect wildlife and habitat, vegetated buffers need to expand to at least 300 feet.


Science_pub_cover-1Obtain Copies of Science Publications:

To document the science behind setbacks and vegetated buffers for riparian protection, Montana Audubon completed three reports for the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality in June 2008. The reports summarize information found in almost 200 scientific studies focused on the functions and size of vegetated buffers.

There are two ways to obtain these reports:

1. Download each publication as a pdf, below:

Ellis, J.H. 2008. The Need for Stream Vegetative Buffers: What Does the Science Say?, three reports to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, EPA/DEQ Wetland Development Grant. Montana Audubon, Helena, MT:

2. Request a copy be mailed to you.

To obtain a FREE copy by mail, send your name, address, and request — for The Need for Stream Vegetative Buffers: What Does the Science Say? — to Montana Audubon (email [email protected]). These publications are also available from the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality.


References for Science Series Publications

The three parts of The Need for Stream Vegetative Buffers: What Does the Science Say? summarize the recommendations of over 200 scientific studies that tested how various stream vegetated buffers protected water quality, aquatic habitat, and wildlife habitat. The information in these reports was taken from the text and tables of 8 review publications. These 8 review publications, with access links, are:

  • Castelle, A.J., A. W. Johnson, and C. Conolly. 1994. Wetland and stream buffer size requirements—a review. J. Environ. Qual. 23: 878–882.
  • Ellis, Janet, and Jim Richard. 2008. A Planning Guide for Protecting Montana’s Wetlands and Riparian Areas. Revised edition. Bozeman, MT, Montana Watercourse, publication MTW-01-03. 105 pp.
  • Fischer, R.A. 2000. Width of riparian zones for birds. EMRRP Technical Notes Collection (TN EMRRP-SI-09), U.S. Army Corps of Engineer Research and Development Center, Vicksburg, MS. 7 pp.
  • Fischer, R.A. C.O. Martin, and J.C. Fischenich. 2000. Improving riparian buffer strips and corridors for water quality and wildlife. International Conference on Riparian Ecology and management in Multi-Land Use Watersheds.American Water Resources Association. August 2000.  7 pp.
  • INFISH. 1995. Inland Native Fish Strategy Environmental Assessment, Decision Notice  and Finding of No Significant Impact for the Inland Native Fish Strategy, U.S. Forest Service, Intermountain, Northern and Pacific Northwest Regions, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. 39 pp.
  • Knutson, K.L., and V.L. Naef. 1997. Management recommendations for Washington’s priority habitats: riparian. Wash. Dept. Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, WA. 181 pp.
  • Mayer, P.M., Steven K. Reynolds, Jr., Timothy J. Caneld. 2005. Riparian buffer width, vegetated cover, and nitrogen removal effectiveness: a review of current science and regulations. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA/600/R-05/118, National Risk Management Research Laboratory, Ada, OK. 28 pp.
  • Wenger, S.J. 1999. A review of the scientific literature on riparian buffer width, extent and vegetation. Athens: Institute of Ecology Office for Public Service and Outreach, University  of  Georgia. 59pp.

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