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Bighorn River

The Bighorn River flows from Yellowtail Dam near the small community of Fort Smith before joining the Yellowstone River downstream from Custer.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission has added its voice to the chorus of Montana anglers calling for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to make adjustments to reduce high flows from Yellowtail Dam into the Bighorn River.

In a teleconference meeting on Monday, the commission voted 3-0 to support a draft letter asking that "the Bureau of Reclamation ... recognize the harm being caused to river users, businesses and landowners as a result of its management procedures and ask it to take immediate corrective action."

Commission chairman Dan Vermillion, of Livingston, dropped from the call before the vote. Commissioner Logan Brower, of Scobey, was not present on the call.

“I did not feel we could wait until our April meeting to provide some formal involvement,” said Shane Colton, the commissioner from Billings who had the letter drafted.

He said it’s the view of many anglers, recreationists and landowners along the river that there’s a threat to the resource because of high water flows. Colton, along with members of the public who spoke during the call, blame the Bureau of Reclamation’s operating criteria for the high water.

Steve Davies, area manager of the bureau, said his agency is committed to reviewing its operating criteria and involving the public in that discussion. He said “extreme hydrology” — two years of which were all-time high flows — has complicated BOR’s planning, which is based on the amount of mountain snowpack. This year the Bighorn Basin snowpack is 150 percent of normal.

“What we don’t know is how it’s going to melt,” Davies said. “We’ve come to expect earlier runoffs.”

In particular, Davies said last year’s record-setting runoff prompted the agency to lower Bighorn Reservoir to an elevation that made it impossible to release more water through Yellowtail Dam.

"The spillway can't pass what it would if (the reservoir) were full," he said.

The bureau will provide an update on its review in April and hopes to have something finalized by November, if not sooner, Davies said.

Rick Gehweiler, general manager of the Bighorn River Lodge, said last year’s high water meant fishing “was very tough by all accounts.” That’s carried over to this year where the lodge has already suffered $70,000 in cancellations so far, he said, adding that the high water has caused continual economic damage to the lodge that has been “catastrophic to the business.”

Justin Hossfeld, manager of the Sunlight Ranch along the Bighorn River, said he understands that unusual weather can cause extreme flows, but he sees the recent high water as a “trend” that has forced landowners to armor their banks against erosion.

Hossfeld joined with the Bighorn River Alliance — a group of anglers, fly shop owners and guides — to release a report this January that denigrated the Bureau of Reclamation’s management, contending it has led to a loss of revenue for via electrical generation from dumping water that doesn’t go through turbines as well as cost local businesses that support a multi-million dollar economic fishing engine.

The alliance has been a longtime critic of the Bureau of Reclamation’s decision to hold more water in Bighorn Reservoir to help boaters launch at Horseshoe Bend Marina, near Lovell, Wyoming, by Memorial Day weekend. Holding more water in reserve, the alliance has contended, has led to the high flows in the spring and early summer below Yellowtail Dam.

Bighorn River landowner Mike McMeans said he hopes the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s letter to Davies would prompt Gov. Steve Bullock to step into the fray. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has already lent his support to the Bighorn River Alliance.