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Big Hole River

The Big Hole River holds the last remaining native population of river-dwelling Arctic grayling in the lower 48 states. On November 6, 2003, MT Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks reopened a 19-mile stretch of the upper Big Hole River that was closed to angling on July 24th due to dewatering by irrigators and high water temperatures threatening the survival of the river's native Arctic grayling. The reopened section of the river flows from Rock Creek Road to the mouth of the North Fork near Wisdom and includes most of the river's critical grayling spawning and rearing habitats. When the flows were approaching 40 cfs, combined with the current cold spell and limited fishing pressure, all contributed to the reopening to fishing of this stretch of river.

The middle reach of the river was closed to fishing from August 23 to September, 2003. The lower reach of the river remained open to fishing throughout the summer. As stated above, the Big Hole River is home to the last, self-sustaining, native population of stream-living Arctic grayling in the lower 48 states. The grayling went into a serious decline in the 1980s. In 1991, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act. The State of Montana precluded listing on the idea that cooperative efforts from local irrigators were needed to increase streamflows to 60 cfs. Ensuring a minimum in-stream flow for the long term is necessary to protect a self-sustaining, healthy population of Arctic grayling.

An Endangered Grayling in a Distressed Big Hole River

In 2004, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offered ranchers a total of $1 million, paying from $40 to $60 an acre NOT to irrigate their hay meadows and pastures. The goal was to leave more water in the upper Big Hole to aid in the survival of stream living grayling, home of the last native population of grayling in the lower 48 states. A total of 15 ranchers participated and stopped irrigating on 13,685 acres by Monday June 28th. On Friday June 18th, the river was dewatered to 30 cfs and days after shutoff water levels rose to 159 cfs.

The Big Hole did not open to fishing on May 15, 2004, Montana’s general fishing season opener. The 19-mile stretch of the upper river from Rock Creek Road to the mouth of the North Fork of the Big Hole was not opened due to extremely low water flows which endangered the spawning-age, wild, native grayling. Streamflows have decreased in the 2004 season in the Big Hole. At Wisdom it was down to 20 cfs over the July 4th weekend. Irrigators initiated irrigation shutdown after July 14 when daily high water temperatures have ranged between 70 and 78 degrees F.

The middle reach of the river was closed to fishing from August 23 to September, 2003. The lower reach of the river remained open to fishing throughout the summer. As stated above, the Big Hole River is home to the last, self-sustaining, native population of stream-living Arctic grayling in the lower 48 states. The grayling went into a serious decline in the 1980s. In 1991, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act. The State of Montana precluded listing on the idea that cooperative efforts from local irrigators were needed to increase streamflows to 60 cfs. Ensuring a minimum in-stream flow for the long term is necessary to protect a self-sustaining, healthy population of Arctic grayling.

Wisdom on Big Hole River

The town of Wisdom on the Upper Big Hole River is raising money to move its sewage lagoons out of the river floodplain to higher ground on State of Montana land. This is the result of an order from DEQ to improve their municipal sewage system. Below Wisdom the Big Hole flows some 180 river miles down to its confluence with the Beaverhead River at Twin Bridges. Within that reach are its and Butte's municipal water supply intake and great reaches of trout stream unrivaled in the nation.

When sewage lagoons become overloaded or wash out in flood events, raw or inadequately treated sewage flows into the river, containing bacteria, viruses, fecal material, toilet paper, tampons and applicators, untreated wastes, oxygen-depleting substances and other toxic material. The pathogens in these contaminated waters can cause gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses, dysentery and hepatitis. The hazard is greatest to children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. It is in the interest of all of us to help Wisdom in this effort to relocate its sewage lagoons out of the floodplain onto higher ground. Please write to Senators Baucus and Burns, and Congressman Dennis Rehberg to encourage them to seek federal funding for Wisdom's effort. ~

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