The Crisis on the Big Hole: Too Little, Too Late, and Way Too Bad

Big Hole River, Montana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

More than 30 outfitters, guides, lodge owners and anglers recently submitted an “emergency request” to Montana’s Gov. Gianforte to immediately employ “the full engagement and all available resources under your authority as governor to both investigate this crash and help us develop solutions, before it’s too late.” The “crash” refers to the precipitous decline in the wild trout populations, for which the Big Hole River is internationally famous.

As detailed in Matthew Kiewiet’s recent article, The Big Hole River and its continued state of peril; trout numbers again at historic lows: “Conditions appear dire as ever and the worst seems yet to come.”

If that sounds like hyperbole, it is not. As Kiewiet wrote: “Recent data from three sections of the 153-mile freestone river in southwest Montana showed the fewest number of brown and rainbow trout since data was first collected in 1969.” To put that in perspective, those numbers have plummeted from a healthy 2,000 to 3,500 trout per mile to a few hundred. And “the worst seems yet to come” refers to the extreme lack of juvenile trout biologists were able to locate during their fish surveys.

While it is truly tragic that the state of Montana could allow such degradation of this treasured river to occur through both Republican and Democratic administrations, there’s simply no getting around the fact that the choices made by the state to deal with the river’s problems have utterly failed. As one example, the Gianforte administration hasn’t even filled the fisheries manager position for the Big Hole, which has been vacant for more than a year and a half.

The “canaries in the coal mine” on the Big Hole were the vanishing Fluvial (river-dwelling) Arctic Grayling — the last population in the Lower 48 states. Reduced to a tiny fraction of their historic range, the few hundred remaining grayling continue to be decimated by chronic irrigation dewatering.

This didn’t just happen overnight — it’s been going on for decades. Thanks to over-appropriation under the archaic tenets of Western water law, those with senior water rights can legally run the river dry. Since water rights are guaranteed as property rights in Montana’s Constitution, the only way to keep the water in the river is to buy or lease those rights.

But the state has been woefully inept at doing so, despite being mandated by law to “fund and implement the program regarding the long-term enhancement of streams and streambanks, instream flows, water leasing, lease or purchase of stored water.”

When it comes to the lack of juvenile fish, there really isn’t much of a mystery. When the river’s flows drop to a trickle of warm water, it forces both the larger fish and the juveniles into the few deep, cooler holes left. But then “the big fish eat the little fish.”

No little fish, however, means no big fish in the near future. And that brings us to the ongoing tragedy that has prompted the plea to Gianforte for “emergency action” — not only to save the river and its fabled fishery, but to maintain the river-based economy.

Unfortunately, there is no magic wand for the governor or anyone else to wave and restore the Big Hole in this crisis short of buying or leasing enough water rights to keep the river flowing in our ever-increasing periods of drought.

Sorry to say, but to date, the state’s inexcusable dereliction of duty to fulfill its public trust responsibilities to the Big Hole and other chronically-dewatered rivers is simply too little, too late — and for those who love our rivers, way too bad.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.