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Bitterroot River

Mitchell Sough Access Shut Off by New Landowners

The Bitterroot River Protective Association filed a suit in District Judge Mizner’s Court in Deerlodge, claiming Mitchell Slough is a historic, 11 miles long side channel of the Bitterroot River and has been used by fishermen and floaters for generations. Known historically as the “East Branch” of Bitterroot River, the waterway has been a favorite fishery for local folks and sustains wild native westslope cutthroat, eastern brook, rainbow, brown trout and whitefish. Bull trout (Dolly Varden) were caught in the past.

Wealthy, out-of-state landowners (rocker Huey Lewis, broker Charles Schwab and others) bought up the land along the slough and other landowners, who cater to paying fishing and private friends, erected double fences to keep out the floaters and waders on the premise that the slough is an irrigation ditch and what was once recognized as public is now theirs. Actually, the slough channels are a natural stream and meander within the riparian area of the Bitterroot River. The local Soil & Water Conservation District (fox watching the hen house) and the MT Department of Natural Resources & Conservation (DNRC) sided in court with the landowners. The question was: did the Soil & Water District have the authority to determine the East Branch was an irrigation ditch? At first, MT Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks entered the suit on the side of the public, then changed its mind to support the landowners. At this time (December, 2005), we don’t know where the hell they are in the case. The court suit is still in Judge Mizner’s Jurisdiction and no ruling has yet been rendered.

Bitterroot Valley Sprawl

The Bitterroot River flows through Montana’s fastest growing county. Local government tied to runaway development interests shows little inclination to apply the breaks, and the watershed is being run over in the process. The river meanders 80 fishable miles through the valley, with the East Fork and West Fork offering another 20 miles each of good fishing. The valley’s mild climate offers fishing almost year round while much of the state is frozen stiff. Shalkaho Creek flows into the Bitterroot from the east just upstream from Hamilton. Above it’s mouth it winds through 10 miles of ranch land that is gradually being suburbanized and above that is 15 miles of steep-walled national forest canyon.

Economically, the river is the lifeblood of the Bitterroot Valley. Without the river, the valley would be just another windswept Western valley. With the river, there are communities, commerce and vitality. The valley’s business community doesn’t begin to grasp the river’s economic significance. The river generates potential for development and high stakes revenue for a consortium of lenders, subdividers, contractors and real estate brokers. They are unmindful of the river’s importance to their economic well-being, with county government as their ally. Riparian corridors along feeder streams and the main river are under attack. Mini-mansions and their riprapped banks are staring at each other. The people’s resolve and the government’s direction are in conflict. The valley’s sprawl lacks planning and direction and has a cancerous effect on the valley and the river.

Bitterroot River and Painted Rocks Dam

July, 2004, MT Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MTFWP) signed a permanent agreement with MT DNRC setting aside 10,000 acre/foot of stored water for instream flow from Painted Rocks Reservoir on the West Fork of the Bitterroot River, with a MTFWP paid water commissioner ensuring the flow stays in the stream to maintain 400 cfs at Bell Crossing. DNRC owns the reservoir and sells stored water on contract. MTFWP negotiated with DNRC in 1984 to annually purchase 10,000 acre-foot of stored water. This lasted until 1992, when they signed a contract that expired in 2004. DNRC needed $400,000 for a major rehabilitation of the dam and Trout Unlimited secured the money from Bonneville Power Administration and consequently MTFWP got the water and DNRC got its dam rehabilitation. ~

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