For those of us who fly fish, Montana has always conjured up dreams of a land where trout thrive in rivers cold and pure. In fact, rarely do we ever consider the inconvenient truth that these waters are not immune to natural or man-made disasters capable of rendering any one of these cherished treasures impotent for years. What many folks don’t realize is that behind the scenes the health and welfare of Montana’s waters require much tender loving care so as to maintain the habitat within which its prized trout dwell. And though it may be a divine experience to fish in a state of delightful detachment from life without giving much thought to this reality, every now and then this same reality exposes its slimy underbelly as if to wake us all from the mesmerizing trance of our bliss. For me, this was the case almost three decades ago.
Occurring after several very dry years began to suck the life from Montana’s rivers during the mid-80s, the sustained drought of that decade literally hit rock bottom in 1988. As Yellowstone National Park was ravaged by historic fire and Montana’s big sky filled with choking smoke and ash, the beleaguered rivers in the southwestern portion of the state teetered on the brink of total devastation. It was ultimately the mighty Jefferson River that suffered the biggest blow in the region when long sections dried up leaving only a corridor of river rock with a remnant trickle flowing between the exposed cobble. If it seemed like hell on earth, for many of us, it was.
As if the conditions imposed upon the Big Sky State by Mother Nature weren’t bad enough, it was the man-enhanced element of the drought that raised the extreme ire of sportsmen far and wide. Although it has been well established in Montana law that ranchers own most of the water flowing within the state’s rivers, the attempt by the agricultural industry to squeeze out every last drop for their fields at the expense of the fishery and the bordering riparian shoreline was judged by all non-irrigators as excessive. While fish died, cottonwoods withered, and the future of the local resource looked bleak, the ensuing battle between sportsmen and ranchers resembled the re-enactment of the Hatfields and McCoys. The meetings that followed between the groups engendered much finger pointing and intense shouting, but in the end the ranching community agreed to release a portion of the water diverted to irrigation ditches back into the contiguous system of upstream tributaries in order to restore a meager base flow to the
Above photo: Drought Plan Managed Flow on the Big Hole River Jefferson for the remainder of the summer.
On a personal level, I could not have been more distraught. After growing up on the Niagara River during the pollution era of the 60s and then moving to the logging decimated forests of Northern Idaho responsible for the demise of westslope cutthroat and bull trout in the 70s, I naively thought those days of abusive resource management practices were in my past upon relocating to Twin Bridges in 1983. But 1988 was a rude awakening. And after attending several heated meetings about the crisis, I realized that I could no longer do nothing. I immediately joined Trout Unlimited (TU), and that following winter attended the Montana Trout Unlimited (MTU) State Council meeting in Helena. Many others did the same.
Subsequently, MTU along with other local sportsmen groups and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (MFWP) worked with ranchers to keep some water in the rivers during the dry years that followed 1988. Though relations between sportsmen and ranchers remained tense, it was important for the ranchers to maintain an image of good stewardship in local communities that depended upon fishing tourism. Subsequently, a somewhat disorganized effort by the Cattlemen Association allowed for minimal flows when needed at the sacrifice of cooperative ranchers along any affected stretch of river. This unofficial resolution worked until the fall of 1994 when a release of sludge from the rancher controlled Ruby River Reservoir killed many fish for several miles below the dam. Again tempers flared.
Consequently, then governor Marc Racicot appointed a Task Force empowered to come up with compatible solutions in a consensus forum to resolve the flow crisis on the Ruby, Beaverhead, and Big Hole Rivers. Naturally, since they all flowed into the Jefferson River, the Jeff would benefit greatly from any resolution. As a result, watershed committees were formed on the Ruby and Big Hole River with the foremost intentions of establishing cooperative relations with all stakeholders on these rivers. MTU, MFWP, sportsmen groups, ranchers, Chambers of Commerce, businesses, etc. all had input. In the end, irrigation systems were updated, river drawdowns were timed better, dam releases were monitored, and more consistent minimum flows resulted as a consequence. Most importantly, good relationships were cultivated.
In 1993 several concerned local anglers formed the Lewis and Clark Chapter of TU in Twin Bridges. The chapter worked with the Ruby Watershed Council while also implementing watershed committees on both the Beaverhead and Jefferson Rivers later in the decade. Along with the long-standing George Grant TU and other sportsmen groups from Butte, Lewis and Clark TU was integral in advancing access opportunities on the Ruby River in the aftermath of the Ruby River Access Task Force in 1995. In time respective watershed committees drew up comprehensive drought plans while enacting strategies to deal with the whirling disease quandary affecting the rivers throughout the 90s. And though it may have taken a couple decades, the Jefferson River eventually returned to its former prominence.
Thus, arising from the ashes of the 1988 drought crisis was an organized grass root effort to do something positive for the resource. An environmental infrastructure was established to deal with subsequent concerns facing the rivers of southwestern Montana. This collaboration of groups also nurtured many river projects while working together to establish policies throughout the entire system intended to improve riparian habitat and enhance fish reproduction. Importantly, this network remains in place today. I have long believed that it is essential for anyone who fishes these rivers to understand the blood, sweat and tears it takes to keep them vital. It is critical to get involved as well.
Noted fishery conservationist Roderick Haig-Brown once entitled one of his books A River Never Sleeps. I would have to add that the problems threatening our rivers never sleep either. The drought of 2016 and the PKD outbreak in the Yellowstone River are stark reminders that we can never take our resources for granted. Add to this the Saprolignia fungus fish kill on the Big Hole River in 2014 and the proposed hydropower project at the dam on the Beaverhead, and it is consoling to realize there is a framework in place today to comprehensively lead the way in dealing with distressing issues. For those of us concerned with rivers, at least, thanks to these organizations, we may be able to sleep a little better… even if the rivers never do.