Back to Montana River Action
Montana River Action
Search This Site
Home Email
Join MRA

Musselshell -- An Endangered River
Also: The Roundup Coal-Fired Power Plant & Coal To Liquid Synfuels

The Musselshell River rises near the middle of the state, 25 miles west of Martinsdale. The dewatered channel slopes east to Melstone, where it turns north through Moseby and into the Missouri River and Fort Peck Reservoir at Crooked Creek. It is truly a Montana River, 500 miles long and totally contained within the state. The Musselshell's source is in the lively waters of Cottonwood, Miller and Hopley Creeks flowing out of the Crazy, Castle and Little Belt Mountains of the National Forest. But soon this river is drained to less than a trickle when it flows into the irrigation diversions downstream. 467 miles of the Musselshell and its tributaries, with 314 miles of the river's main stream, are chronically dewatered each year. Only water bodies that qualify as important fisheries valuable to spawning and rearing are included in the above inventory.

Musselshell River
Musselshell River

At one time the Musselshell was one of Montana's cold water rivers with cutthroat in the upper reaches and walleye, sauger, channel cats and paddle fish in the lower river. Three species of fresh water mussels are native to the river with many species of shellfish, crawdads and numerous other aquatic animals. The Musselshell riparian bottoms were a gift to mankind. Narrow for the most part between rims of the dry uplands, its sub-irrigated wetlands, with the help of beaver dams, transformed the dry, bleached, brittle landscape into a cool watering place for countless wildlife through the centuries.

Musselshell History

Within this wild drainage basin lived the last survivors of the great Northern Buffalo herds. Countless millions of buffalo roamed north from the Yellowstone River to the Saskatchewan grasslands. In 1885, President Theodore Roosevelt sensed that the buffalo would become extinct and sent Smithsonian taxidermist William Temple Hornaday to harvest buffalo specimens so that future generations of Americans may remember what the American buffalo looked like. With the help of the U.S. Army, Hornaday got his skins to the rail head at Miles City in the nick of time to avoid the historic blizzards of 1886. Otherwise the skins would have spoiled and America might not have known what these great animals looked like. Jack Drew, a local rancher, showed us Hornaday's camp at the head of McGinnis Creek, a tributary of Big Porcupine Creek east of Moseby.

The destruction of the buffalo herds was a loss of American wealth many times greater than what it would have cost to conserve them. This stupendous waste was committed by one class of the American people and permitted by our leaders with an extravagance that is inexcusable.

Additional Information

The North, Middle and South Forks of the Musselshell River start on the National Forests of the Little Belt, Castle and Crazy Mountains of Central Montana and flow 500 miles to the river's confluence with the Missouri River in Fort Peck Reservoir within the Charles Russell Game Refuge. The Musselshell was one of Montana's cold water rivers with cutthroat trout in the upper reaches and walleye, sauger, channel cats and paddle fish in the lower parts. Three species of fresh-water mussels are native to the river with many species of shellfish, crawdads and other aquatic life.

Above Martinsdale, where Cottonwood, Miller and Hopley Creeks add their healthy flows, the river ran sweet, clear and cold on August 13, 2001. But soon it was drained to less than a trickle when it flowed into the irrigation diversions downstream. Such was the condition of the remaining 367 miles of the Musselshell River down to the US Highway 200 bridge at Mosby, about 30 miles upstream from its confluence with the Missouri River. There was no flow in the channel, though there was some warm, cloudy water standing in the deeper pools. The wet bottoms were overgrazed by cattle, with no willow or cottonwood reproduction. Hayfields were being overhead irrigated from wells and pumps in the flood plain and Mellstone was out of municipal water.

467 miles of the Musselshell and its tributaries, with 314 miles of the main stem of the river, are chronically dewatered each year. The drainage has been inventoried by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks with the following results:

  • 25 miles of the North Fork from Blair Reservoir to its mouth are chronically dewatered each year.
  • 13 miles of the South Fork from Muddy Creek to its mouth are chronically dewatered each year.
  • 40 miles from Mosby to its confluence with the Missouri are chronically dewatered each year.
  • 289 miles from Martinsdale to Mosby are chronically dewatered each year.
  • 10 miles of American Fork Creek are chronically dewatered each year.
  • 10 miles of Big Elk Creek are chronically dewatered each year.
  • 25 miles of Careless Creek are chronically dewatered each year.
  • 69 miles of Flat Willow Creek are chronically dewatered each year.
  • 6 miles of Spring Creek are chronically dewatered each year.
  • 20 miles of Swimming Woman Creek are chronically dewatered each year.
Musselshell River
Musselshell River

All these streams are virtually dewatered in all years, whether seasons are dry or wet. Where Cottonwood Creek flows sweet, clear and bank-full out of the National Forest on the north end of the Crazy Mountains as one of the main tributaries of the Musselshell, it has 6 miles periodically dewatered each year. Periodic dewatering is a significant problem in only drought or water-short years. The MT Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks inventory includes only those streams that are classified as important fisheries valuable to spawning and rearing of juvenile fish. ~

Also: The Roundup Coal-Fired Power Plant
and
Coal To Liquid Synfuels

Back to Montana River Action
304 N 18th Avenue • Bozeman MT 59715 • Phone: 406-587-9181
Search This Site
Home Email
Join MRA