Montana anglers upset over increased dam security

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Security at dams upsets fishermen

BY JAMES HAGENGRUBER Of The Billings Gazette Staff

6/21/02

Fish are easily spotted swimming in a clear pool below Fresno Dam near Havre.

But since Sept. 11, the trout, walleye and northern pike have been off-limits to fishermen because of federal concern over dam security.

Anglers are starting to get angry and are asking the federal government to remove the chain link fences and ease rules.

The government is "overreacting," said Don Groven, a resident of Havre and former statewide president of Walleyes Unlimited. "All they're doing is hindering the opportunity to fish."

The Bureau of Reclamation operates Fresno Dam and instituted restrictions shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Increased security has been implemented at dams and reservoirs around Montana and the rest of the country.

Security experts were used to help develop the plans, said Mark Andersen, a Bureau of Reclamation spokesman in Billings. Certain restrictions were eased in April, including access to a fishing site downstream from Fresno Dam.

"What we're trying to do is balance public use to provide a level of security at the facility. There are still nationwide concerns," Andersen said. "We're responding to them."

Fishing below Tiber Dam, near Chester, has also been disrupted by the increased security. Access to Yellowtail Dam at Fort Smith has been curtailed, but fishermen are still able to reach most areas surrounding the popular walleye and trout fishery, said Harvey Nyberg, regional supervisor for Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Billings. A plan has been developed by state and federal officials to string a protective buoy line upstream from Yellowtail Dam between Ok-A-Beh boat ramp and the dam, he said. A similar buoy line will also float downstream from the dam in the Bighorn River, but Nyberg said he knows of no plans to restrict access from the Afterbay boat ramp downstream.

Most of the complaints from fishermen have centered on Fresno and Tiber dams, which are popular fisheries in Northern Montana. Neither of the facilities has electricity generating stations.

The Fresno Chapter of Walleyes Unlimited sent a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation last month calling for the restrictions to be eased.

The measures are a "gross overreaction to those perceived threats and does absolutely nothing to safeguard the dam," stated the letter, signed by chapter president Mike Barthel. "We believe the closure plays directly into the hands of the enemies of this country by disrupting everyday activities of our lives unnecessarily."

Although a state fishing site below Fresno Dam reopened in April, the best fishing is from the side of the spillway above the dam, said Kent Gilge, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist in Havre. A fence has long surrounded the top of the spillway, but until Sept. 11, fishermen were able to drop baits into the pool 50 feet below by poking rods through the fence, Gilge said.

"If you wanted to catch walleye, pike, trout or ling that's where you went," he said.

The closure blocked spillway access to fishermen, but vehicles are still allowed to drive over the dam and boats are allowed to approach the dam from the reservoir side, Gilge said.

"Apparently terrorism doesn't occur upstream," he said.

The Bureau of Reclamation said it is constantly monitoring the situation, but has no current plans to ease restrictions. The agency is trying to be proactive and secure important water supplies, Andersen said.

"We're still operating at heightened security," he said. "How long will that be? We don't know."


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James Hagengruber can be reached at 657-1232 or at jhagengruber@billingsgazette.com
 

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