Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks closed a 19-mile stretch of the upper Big Hole River today to all angling due to extremely low water conditions that threaten the survival of the river's native Arctic grayling population. The closure will take effect tonight at midnight.
"Like last year at this time, the flows and water temperatures in the upper Big Hole River are at levels that are detrimental to the river's native grayling," said FWP Fisheries Division chief Larry Peterman.
Peterman said stream flows near Wisdom have fallen to 7 cubic feet per second, one of the lowest flows on record for this date and well below the 20 cfs recommended point of closure under the Big Hole Drought Management Plan.This time of year, the upper Big Hole River normally flows at 320 cfs. The same reach was closed last year on June 29.
FWP closed the stream under a new drought emergency decision process approved earlier in June by the FWP Commission thatdelegates angling-closure authority to FWP Director Jeff Hagener and the FWP Commissioner representing the area where the body of water is located. The area's FWP Commissoner is Tim Mulligan of Whitehall.
The Big Hole Drought Management Plan separates the Big Hole River into three "drought emergency" reaches. Today's closure encompasses the upper-most reach near Wisdom--a 19-mile stretch from Rock Creek Road to the mouth of the North Fork of the Big Hole. The stretch includes most of the river's critical grayling spawning and rearing habitats. The Big Hole Watershed Committee, a group of volunteers from agriculture, municipal, business, conservation, angling, and government interests, developed the Big Hole Drought Management Plan.
Peterman said irrigators in the basin are again participating in the drought response plan and continue to play an important role in helping to keep water in the Big Hole River this summer. "This drought is hitting this community for the third straight year. It's a very tough situation," he said. "The Big Hole water users are a critical part of the water-conservation solution in this valley. Last year, a number of irrigators used less water than they were entitled to and the river and its fishery came through in better condition than we expected. We are grateful for their help."
Beginning in 1995, FWP and local Big Hole River water users defined emergency fishing-regulation guidelines and river- flow benchmarks that could influence angling opportunities when low-water conditions occur on the Big Hole. Those guidelines are now being followed as the Big Hole River flows continue to drop.
The combination of the angling closure and the irrigators' willingness to cut back on water they have a legal right to use are designed to conserve and protect the Big Hole's spawning-age wild and native grayling. "Most Big Hole River irrigators are about to harvest their hay and will likely stop watering crops next week, which should result in better, yet still critically low, stream flows," Peterman said.
Flows on down stream portions of the Big Hole River--from Mudd Creek to the Jefferson River--are also dropping, and will likely be considered for angling closures later this summer. Peterman noted that the river at Melrose-"the most popular fishing reach and the beginning of the river's lowest drought emergency reach--was clocked today at 827 cfs where it would normally flow at more than 2,500 cfs.
Once abundant in the Missouri River above Great Falls, Montana's native fluvial, or river-dwelling, Arctic grayling are now restricted to the upper Big Hole River. The population represents the last remaining native population of river-dwelling Arctic grayling in the lower 48 states.Introductions of grayling into some Missouri River tributaries have recently been made to expand the native fish's present range.
FWP closes streams to fishing when low-water conditions and high temperatures, combined with fishing pressure, would lead to an unacceptable level of stress on fish. Montana's streams and rivers contain populations of wild trout that replenish through natural spawning. It is critical that sufficient numbers of trout are conserved to repopulate the fishery when conditions improve.
The Big Hole River, or portions of it, was closed to angling due to drought-related low flows in 2000, 1999, 1994, and 1988. Peterman said the upper Big Hole closure will likely remain in effect throughout the summer.