Anglers on the Big Hole River near the Powerhouse fishing access site on Aug. 2, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
WISE RIVER — After years of grassroots collaboration and sounding the alarm about trout population and water declines in the Big Hole Valley, locals’ efforts to figure out why fish are getting sick and dying in record numbers in the Jefferson Basin and why water levels continue to drop are drawing attention from the state government.
More than 100 people showed up to a community center in Wise River, population 44, on Wednesday for a long-sought discussion among Montana’s government officials, anglers, ranchers and scientists about how to form a consensus to address the issues on the Big Hole and other iconic rivers in the Jefferson Basin.
While participants displayed some competing interests and ideologies, there was no disagreement that figuring out how to better conserve and utilize the decreasing amount of water in the basin was the key.
“Water is the primary driver. We’ve got to find a way to better use water in a way that everybody [benefits] in this room,” said Montana Trout Unlimited Conservation and Government Affairs Director Clayton Elliott. “It cannot be robbing Peter to pay Paul; we can all win here. But we have to better understand the data, where we can move the needle, and we need to have laws and policies that help us get there.”
Gov. Greg Gianforte and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Dustin Temple told the seven others on a panel and the dozens in the audience they were there to help figure out why trout levels have plummeted in the basin over the past decade and why “zombie” trout with lesions and burn-like wounds are appearing more often in the Big Hole, Ruby, Beaverhead and Jefferson rivers over the past several years.
The Governor’s Office convened the roundtable after a group of frustrated residents accused the Gianforte administration of inaction and formed their own group.
Ranchers and agricultural water users in the valley said they have for years been taking less than their water right to take care of their land and livestock, and as some of the original settlers of the valley, some feel they should not have to further sacrifice in order to protect fish habitat in a river that has already seen major efforts to protect Arctic grayling in the system.
Anglers and outfitters said they are on the river and monitoring water levels and temperatures daily while also voluntarily restricting the number of trips they take and abiding by hoot-owl and other restrictions to try to keep fish healthy.
There was some disagreement about how to better store water in the undammed system – adding dams upstream, removing water-sucking conifer trees near waterways, and cloud seeding to artificially create rain clouds were mentioned – as well as discussions over gauges, monitoring sites, public data presentations and ditch gates and how improvements to all could be beneficial in identifying the issues in the system quickly.
Father-and-son Wade and Craig Fellin, co-owners of the Big Hole Lodge, were two of the roundtable members. Wade Fellin helped bring together a new organization in the basin, Save Wild Trout, this summer to try to address the issues that he said at the time the Gianforte administration was ignoring. He and other locals on May 30 asked for a meeting in Wise River or Helena.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission did later that month meet and adopt emergency fishing regulations for the Big Hole, Beaverhead and Ruby rivers. In July, FWP launched a portal for anglers to report sick or dead fish, and unveiled upcoming research efforts to study the trout declines, including a fish mortality study, a juvenile fish study and a fish health study – most of which will begin in earnest next year after Montana State University builds a team to do the work.
Wade Fellin, who guides the Big Hole and Wise rivers and is the past chair of the Big Hole River Foundation, said those were positive long-term steps to be taken but wondered if there could be short-term changes to address the rivers this summer beyond the hoot-owl restrictions already in place on various stretches.
He said he would like to see better public access to all of the water data from various agencies on the rivers by having it all in one place, have a better way for visitors to be aware of fishing restrictions, and wants to find a better consensus of what temperature threshold should be used to close rivers to fishing.
FWP currently adds restrictions if a waterway has been at or above 73 degrees for three days in a row for rainbow and brown trout, and 66 degrees for cutthroat trout. Fellin said he and his guides have a self-imposed fishing cutoff of 68 degrees, and suggested the state put more money toward water monitoring.
“It makes sense to me with this money available to put in a really robust monitoring system with dissolved oxygen readouts, nutrient content readouts, temperature and flow, and come up with for the angling community a better nexus of what water quality standards are safe to be fishing under,” Fellin said. “And if it’s just 73 degrees and the river’s just trickling, and that’s safe, then we’ll get off the soapbox. But if it’s lower than that I think you’ll find the fishing community to be very willing to change our standards.”
Save Wild Trout announced last week it had hired hydrologist and engineer Kyle Flynn to lead its own investigation into what is happening in the Jefferson Basin, with hopes of installing more water-monitoring sensors to study the environmental and ecological factors of the trout decline and also testing for other toxins or stressors in the water that is contributing to it.
Al Zale, a professor at MSU and the leader of the Montana Cooperative Fishery Research Unit, outlined the research he and his colleagues will get underway over the next year with FWP and others, and said he is trying to find the top people in the world to help with the projects.
“We are recruiting internationally trying to find the best people from anywhere in the world to do this work,” he said.
He said teams will also look at better ways of getting reports from anglers on fish and water conditions, possibly using artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as satellite photos of put-ins and automatic cameras to track fishing pressure.
Pedro Marques, the executive director of the Big Hole Watershed Committee, now in its 28th year, said the organization composed of water quality experts, ecologists, ranchers, outfitters and anglers was a good example of the collaboration already happening in the valley.
“If something else replaces this cooperative model, and the cooperative model goes away, I think you’ll see a decline in the state of the fishery pretty quickly,” Marques said.
Some members of the audience and Big Hole Watershed Committee Vice Chair and rancher Jim Hagenbarth said that environmental groups blocking certain forestry and agriculture projects were further harming the watershed. He called them extremists, drawing applause from the audience, and said the community also needed to listen to ranchers and farmers about how to properly treat the land to keep hold of more surface water. A few in the audience also called for a shutdown of the river for the summer and an end to paving new boat ramps to limit pressure.
Rancher Bill Garrison suggested putting in smaller dams in the headwaters of the rivers to try to capture more of the snowpack and rainfall higher up and better regulate outflows – a suggestion popular with other ranchers in the room.
Charlie Ivor, who lives on the Big Hole, told the panel that everyone needed to acknowledge that human-caused climate change was playing a factor worldwide in species extinction.
“Climate change is real. I think we need to acknowledge that man has caused a drastic change in the weather, and we need to acknowledge that and participate in saving species around the world,” he said.
Craig Fellin said he was confident that if all the groups at the table and in the audience worked together, they would be successful in their missions despite some competing interests.
“We got through whirling disease years ago … we can beat whatever is taking our wild trout,” Craig Fellin said.
At the end of the discussion, the governor promised that his door would be open for further talks with the members of the roundtable and community.
“I’m here to listen and to learn and see how the state can be a better partner working together with the community,” Gianforte said. “Our waterways are really critical to our way of life; they’re critical for agriculture, for outdoor recreation and for the tourism industry. And when they’re not as healthy as we want them to be, it causes problems to livelihoods and impacts lives and impacts wildlife.”
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.