Some Montana fisheries devastated by lingering drought


Mar 11, 2001
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Many state fisheries left devastated by lingering drought .

By MARK HENCKEL, Gazette Outdoor Editor.

No water, no fish.

That’s the short version of the drought that much of Montana has endured in the past few years.

Through the summer, mandatory stream closures and voluntary advisories restricted fishing on a long list of waters including the Big Hole, Smith, Red Rock, Blackfoot, Jefferson and Yellowstone rivers. Those closures and advisories were occasioned by low flows and high water temperatures that threatened to kill fish, mainly trout.

On Montana’s reservoirs – built for storing irrigation water, with fish habitat pretty much an afterthought – pools grew lower all summer long. Little water came in, and what water was there went out for crops.

But when you talk about drought and fish, things get complex.

The drought isn’t anywhere near finished affecting fisheries in the state. The summer’s drought promises to affect both fish and fishermen this fall and winter, next spring and long into the future.

“For fisheries, the problem doesn’t end when the hot weather goes away,” said Kathleen Williams, water resources manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Helena. “The drought isn’t over. It’s just showing itself in different ways.”

“We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Bruce Rich, regional fisheries manager for FWP at Bozeman. “Now it’s ‘How are we going to endure this winter?’ With continuing low flows on our streams, if we get a really tough winter, we’re going to take a real hit this year.”

Winter, especially in drought years like this one, brings a range of situations that can kill fish in rivers and streams.

“When we’ve got low flows, that reduces the cross-section of the streams and makes them prone to icing,” Rich said. “Some of them can freeze nearly top to bottom, which will make the streams jump out of its channels. Or you can have ice jams that have the same effect and leave old channels dry. Or there’s icing that basically gorges down the stream, breaks and there’s a big wall of ice fragments and sediment that moves down and takes out fish and whatever else is in its way. Or, you can have icing that starts on the bottom of the stream and can fill in some of the hiding places for the small fish.”

In addition, simple stress will take other fish out of the population, Rich added. He offered the Beaverhead River as an example.

“We know a lot of the bigger browns are going to be crowded in with all these other fish,” he said. “Through some combination of starvation and stress, they just kind of winnow out of the population. They either get skinny and die or drop downstream or something happens to them and they disappear.

“Years like this are particularly tough on big fish.”

Among Montana rivers, perhaps none took a hit like the Musselshell, which has become something of a poster child for drought and trout in the state.

“One of the things that impressed me so much was that the Musselshell isn’t just dry, it’s overgrown,” said Jim Darling, regional fisheries manager for FWP in Billings. “There are grasses and shrubs growing where stream channels should be. That’s what a prolonged drought can do.

“Of all of them, the Musselshell is the most dramatic. It’s a chronically dewatered system, but it has hit new lows. There has been a remarkably resilient brown trout population up there but the Musselshell is the most spectacularly dry system we’ve got. We’ll see how truly resilient it can be this year.”

In assessing the drought situation in south-central Montana, water levels were so low on the Musselshell and other rivers that fisheries biologists can’t even assess them.

“Some of the problem is that we can’t even get out there to monitor the situation on rivers like the Yellowstone,” Darling said. “We can’t get the boats out to safely sample them.”

Reservoirs, ranging from small farm ponds to sprawling Fort Peck, also have taken a big hit this year in a variety of ways.

“We lost plenty of smaller ponds,” Darling said. “We also got fish kills in some of our larger ponds – Arapooish (near Hardin), Laurel Pond, Broadview Pond. On Deadman’s Basin, they dynamited a new channel to draw the water level down lower. We don’t know of a fish kill there, but there isn’t much left of Deadman’s Basin.”

Across Northern Montana, many more ponds and reservoirs were lost during the summer or face possible winter kills.

“In the Havre area, we had the worst situation as far as low water levels on the ponds,” said Bill Wiedenheft, regional fisheries manager for FWP at Glasgow. “Big Dry Reservoir was totally drawn down. That fishery was lost. Kent Gilge (the biologist at Havre) reports there are many other reservoirs over there with low water conditions that as we go into the winter, we can expect a fair level of winter kill.

“Fresno Reservoir was drawn down again to as low as it can be taken down,” he added. “That impacted the walleye fishery over there and the forage base, the yellow perch population.”

Fort Peck Reservoir lost water, too, with lake elevations falling 15 feet in the past year alone. “When that happens, we certainly lost production of our shoreline minnows and other forage fish along with game fish,” Wiedenheft said. “As for the paddlefish production, it was not good. We had a graduate student out looking for young-of-the-year paddlers. I think he found one.”

Dropping water levels have also impacted fishermen by leaving boat ramps at Nelson Creek and Crooked Creek high and dry on Fort Peck and making launching more difficult at Fresno and Nelson and other Northern Montana reservoirs.

If news of current conditions and the coming winter aren’t bad enough, long-term prospects aren’t much better.

Rich used Clark Canyon Reservoir, near Dillon, as his best example of the effect on reservoirs.

“The situation at Clark Canyon is extremely tough,” he said. “It’s literally at the lowest it has ever been since it was impounded. We won’t be able to recover that amount of water next year even with a good water year. It will take two decent water years to get it back up to speed.”

Darling said rivers and streams also would take years for their fish populations to recover.

“You not only lose the fish, you lose the habitat. Until the habitat comes back, you can’t do anything,” Darling said. “We know we’ve lost the young of the year from this year. We’re losing older fish. It’s going to take several years of good water conditions for these streams to come back.

“The insect life in the streams seem to recolonize much faster. They have this advantage called wings and they recolonize much faster than the fish,” Darling said. “But what we need is the proper temperatures and everything that comes with proper flows before we can recover.”

There has been no talk yet of replenishing stream trout with hatchery fish, he added. As to the reservoirs, hatchery personnel are hoping for the best to have enough water to begin rebuilding fisheries.

And if the drought lasts another year, then what are the prospects for the state’s fisheries?

Williams, who coordinated statewide drought reporting on fisheries from her office in Helena, put it this way:

“There will be a wringing of hands,” she said. “One of our fish managers said – and he was only being a little facetious – that the reporting on drought conditions will be easy next year because there won’t be anything left to report on.”

Mark Henckel can be contacted at 657-1395 or at

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