When it comes to stream restoration in eastern Montana, the Future Fisheries program annually struggles to find suitable projects to benefit wild and native fish.
For Future Fisheries, there is some irony in the eastern Montana restoration hurdles that confront the program. Consider, on one hand, that there are fewer water bodies on the eastern Montana prairie when compared to western Montana. Then, on the other hand, consider that eastern Montana's waters are typically large-scale river systems that demand rather complex and expensive projects.
Still, one major eastern Montana project, partially funded by Future Fisheries, is frequently touted as a model for future restoration efforts for Montana's prairie rivers and streams.
The Tongue River, a tributary to the Yellowstone River, supports a mind-bogglingly rich assemblage of native warm water fish including sauger, paddlefish, blue sucker, sicklefin chub, sturgeon chub, and potentially one day, pallid sturgeon. With this type fishery, the Tongue River, and systems like it, is a prime eastern Montana candidate for Future Fisheries funding.
Future Fisheries, which offers about $745,000 annually to restore wild and native fish habitats across Montana, emphasizes local approaches for on-the-ground restoration of lakes, rivers and streams that benefit wild and native fish—and the land and water that supports them.
The Tongue & Yellowstone Diversion Dam, located on the Tongue River about 20 miles upstream from the confluence with the Yellowstone near Miles City, has long delivered water through a complex system of canals to farms and ranches owned by about 300 families. The T&Y diversion, however, also acted as a century-old barrier to fish passage that effectively trapped fish in the canals and blocked spawning runs of fish from the Yellowstone and lower Tongue rivers. Among the 37,000 fish sucked into the canals each year were sauger, catfish, perch, sunfish, smallmouth bass, and a dozen other fish species.
To provide for upstream fish passage—in a program spearheaded by Roger Muggli, the manager of the T&Y Irrigation District—the Future Fisheries Improvement Program contributed about $79,000 toward construction of a passageway for fish to swim around the diversion.
In addition to FWP, Muggli solicited support from other state and federal agencies, and national conservation groups—including The Nature Conservancy—to restore fish to the Tongue River by building the fish passageway around the T&Y diversion dam.
Muggli's irrigation district also donated three acres of land and construction equipment to build the canal, which is longer than two football fields and filled with boulders to ease water flows for fish swimming upstream to spawn. The total cost of the fish passageway was about $400,000. It was completed in 2007 and opened more than 50 miles of habitat for 49 warm water fish species.
Future Fisheries applications are considered every year in January and July. An independent review panel recommends Future Fisheries projects to fund to the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission.