BILLINGS – Hatching brown trout in the Montana stretch of the Bighorn River got a two-week reprieve Tuesday when federal water managers agreed to stabilize flows from Yellowtail Dam. As the result of a conference call Tuesday between Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and recreation interest from Montana and Wyoming, the federal dam managers agreed to continue releases from Yellowtail Dam into the Bighorn River at 1,900 cubic feet per second (cfs). Late last week, federal officials became concerned that water was not flowing into the top end of Bighorn Reservoir, which is backed up by Yellowtail Dam, at anticipated rates. As a result, they cut back the flow from 1,900 cfs to 1,650 cfs Monday morning. Following conversations with FWP Monday afternoon, they returned flows to the higher level and scheduled a conference call for Tuesday morning. Spring runoff from mountain snowpacks is later than planned this year because of cool weather. However, those snowpacks are above historic averages and FWP officials believe they eventually will work their way into the reservoir. FWP biologists believe that brown trout eggs, which were spawned in November and December, now are hatching in shallow gravel beds in the Bighorn River. The young fish will not emerge from the gravel until May or June, biologists believe. If water levels in the river drop, an entire year’s worth of fry will perish within hours. Brown trout populations in the Bighorn River already are in jeopardy because drought forced water managers to drop water levels during critical spawning and rearing months in previous years. Low water levels at this time of year also could hamper the growth of insects, which feed all trout species in the river. The federal water managers, meanwhile, must balance agricultural and recreation interest both in the river below Yellowtail Dam and in the reservoir. One goal is to fill the lake to an elevation of 3,920 feet by Memorial Day. That is about 10 feet higher than Tuesday’s level. FWP officials said during the Tuesday conference call that the next two weeks will tell how much late-season precipitation and spring runoff will flow into the lake. If the anticipated runoff does not occur, they agreed, the Bureau of Reclamation will cut flows into the river to as few as 1,500 cfs and start filling the lake. If runoff picks up to a level that will fill the lake, flows below the dam will remain at 1,900 cfs or more. At 1,500 cfs, brown trout fry will perish, FWS officials believe. But they were willing to risk low flows later in the spring to ensure survival of the hatching trout eggs for the next two weeks. All parties agreed to revisit spring precipitation and runoff statistics, lake levels and river flows in May.
BAUCUS APPLAUDS IMPORTANT VICTORY FOR BIGHORN RIVER Senator Says While Not Perfect, Flow Increase Could Save Brown Trout Spawn In direct response to pressure from Montana Senator Max Baucus, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that they will increase flows for the Bighorn River starting in November. The BOR fall/winter release plan would increase flows by 150 cubic feet per second from 1750 cfs to 1900 cfs. Protecting Our Outdoor Heritage While at this point the Friends of Bighorn River are delighted with any increase in flows, 1900 cfs is still well below established minimums for a healthy fishery, and we are going to continue to hold are breath and pray that the brown trout have a decent spawn, said Doug Haacke, founder of the Friends of the Bighorn River. As always, we appreciate Senator Baucus bulldog-like tenacity in standing with us to ensure flows for a healthy fishery. In September Baucus sent a letter to Dan Jewell, the BORs area director, making a strong case for increased flows to help brown trout populations, which have decreased from 9,000 per mile in 1997 to around 2,000 today. While Baucus originally requested for flows to be increased to 2,500 cfs for the fall and winter, he said that this was an important step to protecting the brown trout population. This is a good step in the right direction, but Im going to keep pushing for increased flows, Baucus said. The Bighorn is more than a river, its an economic lifeline, and a haven for anglers from all over the world, and I want to make sure that the river levels, and the brown trout population, reach healthy levels. Baucus September request was the latest development in a dispute that has pitted recreation interests in Wyoming against Montana fishermen and women, outfitters, and small business owners who say the Bighorn River generates more than $30 million per year in economic activity. Wyoming wants more water held in Bighorn Lake, while Montana wants more water released into the river. Baucus was pointed in his September assessment of the current situation, noting Bighorn Lake levels, as of September 3, were 31.7 feet higher than on the same date in 2006. He said the water level was 50.2 feet above the minimum for boat launches at Barrys Landing and Ok-A-Beh in Montana, and 15.2 feet above the minimum at Horseshoe Bend in Wyoming. Working Together For The Bighorn At the urging of Baucus, Montanas elected leaders, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and river advocates, the BOR increased flows in the river this summer from 1,500 cubic feet per second to 1,750 CFS. It was a small but important victory for the river, but the fall months will prove pivotal in fisheries biologists efforts to protect brown trout numbers in the river. While hes pushing the agency for increased flows, Baucus is also working to pass his Bighorn River Protection Act, which would set preferred minimum flows at 2,500 cubic feet per second, require the agency to manage all four BOR reservoirs in the Bighorn watershed together, and list maintaining a healthy fishery as one of Yellowtail Dams authorized uses. (Currently, the dam is authorized only for flood control and power generation.)