The Bighorn River

The Bighorn River attracts anglers from around the world to fish its trout-rich waters. Recent calculations from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks estimated resident anglers spent about $3.8 million compared to $98.4 million by nonresidents to fish the south central Montana stream.


Calling one of Montana’s most famous trout fishing streams “at risk,” a coalition of Bighorn River anglers, outfitters, a ranch manager and U.S. senator are joining together in a concerted push for new water management.

Squarely in the group’s sights is the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Yellowtail Dam. Since 1967 the dam has backed up 70 miles of the Bighorn River through a serpentine and stunningly beautiful desert canyon, all the way south into Wyoming. Below the dam, the released water and the reservoir’s entrapment of upstream sediment has created a world-renowned coldwater trout fishery.

Based on new analyses by the Bighorn River Alliance, mismanagement of the dam by Reclamation has cost taxpayers millions in electricity revenue and resulted in lost income for the river’s angling and agricultural economies.

“The Bureau of Reclamation can't keep wasting taxpayer money and hurting the local economy,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in a statement. “It's time to make a change.”

A Reclamation official said the agency has not reviewed the alliance's findings, although it was provided with copies.

Dam spillage graph

This graph shows the amount of water spilled over Yellowtail Dam prior to and after management was split between Montana and Wyoming.

Over the dam

To alter the conversation on what has been an 11-year attempt at cooperative management between various factions, the Bighorn River Alliance has compiled a detailed report featuring several new arguments to support its demands for a new dam management formula.

Perhaps the most stunning and unique new claim is that since 2008 Reclamation has lost an estimated $64 million in revenue due to water spillage. The Bighorn River Alliance’s Doug Haacke calculated the figure by using Reclamation’s own Hydromet hydrologic monitoring system to track water releases that didn’t go through electricity-generating turbines — an estimated 4.6 million acre feet — and multiplying that amount by a current fair market value of $14 per acre foot.

Haacke’s analysis isn’t to simply point out a loss of revenue, but also to show how the change in management of the dam has led to that spillage. Between 1967 and 1993, spillage over Yellowtail Dam was just above 1 million acre feet, Haacke calculated. In 1994, when the Bureau of Reclamation split management of the system between Wyoming and Montana — instead of continuing to manage it as one river basin — spillage increased to 4.6 million acre feet between 1994 and 2017. The alliance has long charged that the two states aren’t effectively communicating with each other, despite Reclamation’s assurances that they are in constant contact.

According to Haacke’s calculations, most of those large releases did not occur until after the 2008 management criteria change, when Reclamation was attempting to keep more water in the reservoir to make Horseshoe Bend Marina, at the south end of the lake, accessible to boaters by Memorial Day.

“When high flows or low flows become the norm, as opposed to the exception below a dam, we have a water management problem,” said Anne Marie Emery, executive director of the Bighorn River Alliance, in an email. “When a decade goes by without changes made to correct overly conservative water management protocols, we have an environmental injustice and a political issue.”

Winter view

The Bighorn River begins in Wyoming and flows northeast into Montana, finally emptying into the Yellowstone River. Management of dams along the river is now divided by state, whereas it used to be managed by one entity.


The Bighorn River Alliance also calculated a new value for the river’s economy to highlight the importance of the fishery.

Using updated figures, the report places the “total economic value” of the river and its fishery to Montana’s economy at more than $134 million a year. Total economic value is not just what anglers spend — a figure that was estimated at $3.8 million for resident anglers and $98.4 million by nonresidents — but also includes the value of the existence of the river, that it will be there in the future and that some people would be willing to pay to preserve the option of someday using the river. According to a 1987 study for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on the net economic value of fishing, which was cited by the alliance, only 20 percent of a resource’s total economic value is recreation.

“It’s obviously a really valuable fishery, that’s the bottom line,” said John Duffield, one of the authors of that 1987 study and a retired University of Montana professor.

He explained net economic value as those who are willing to pay for panda bear conservation even though they may never see one.

“It’s kind of philosophical, but it’s real,” he said.

Although Duffield said he doesn’t like to add economic value and expenditures, because there’s no real use for the figures, he did say the number is “eye catching.” He also noted that the analysis didn’t report the confidence interval of the numbers, which can be plus or minus 20 percent.

“You compound the error when you add those two numbers together.”

Eroded banks

Bank erosion has resulted in a loss of agricultural acreage, as well as the crops that would have grown on those lands, according to the Bighorn River Alliance.

Ag figures

The report also generated some other new figures, including a loss of $288,000 from 48 acres of cropland being washed away in high flows; $240,000 from the crops that can no longer be raised on those missing acres; and $7 million in lost income to agricultural producers due to interrupted irrigation or crop planting along the river below the reservoir since new operating criteria were introduced in 2008.

The cost of armoring banks to prevent further erosion — a practice frowned upon by river managers because armoring deflects the water elsewhere and can increase the water’s speed — was estimated at $3.1 million. These estimates were applied only to the first 34 miles of the 78 miles of the Bighorn River in Montana.

“Since water management rules were arbitrarily changed in 2008, the dam has lost its ability to be a shock absorber for high or low inflows,” said Justin Hossfeld, manager of Sunlight Ranch, a portion of which is along the Bighorn River.

Hossfeld said he joined the alliance’s push for dam management changes and calculated the Sunlight Ranch’s losses after realizing the two entities' goals meshed.

“As I was analyzing the effects on landowners and agriculture, I saw a direct correlation to the fishing side of things,” he said. “It’s all interconnected and a common cause.”

Bank erosion leads to increased sedimentation in the river which can suffocate trout eggs laid in gravel, Hossfeld noted. Both problems can be attributed to high water releases. Even discounting high water years like 2011 and 2017, he said his calculations showed a 300 percent increase in damaging high water flows, on average, between 2008 and 2017 when compared to previous years.

“That’s what convinced me to join this effort,” he said. “It isn’t just our gut feeling. This is documentable, significant and profound in its effects.”

Moss mats

Huge mats of vegetation are seasonally choking the Bighorn River. The Bighorn River Alliance believes the increase in vegetation may be due to increased sediment loads in the river caused by high water releases.


Boiled down, what the alliance would like to see is the Bureau of Reclamation push back its target date for filling the reservoir high enough — a minimum lake elevation of 3,617 feet — to operate Horseshoe Bend Marina at the southern end of the lake, located in Wyoming. Right now that target is Memorial Day weekend. The alliance would prefer to see that date, depending on forecasted water inflows, to be roughly two weeks to a month later.

“That would allow them to see how much water was sitting in the mountains,” Hossfeld said. “It would leave a little more cushion in the dam so they can react to what Mother Nature does.”

By pushing back the deadline, the alliance reasons, the Bureau of Reclamation could avoid the damaging high flows out of the dam in springtime that have become more common. Those flows have sometimes run high because Reclamation has had to quickly release water to make room for unplanned runoff.

“It all gets back to having a little more balance,” Haacke said. “That’s the way they used to do it.”

Bureau focus

Because of the Bighorn River’s popularity, and the businesses and economy it sustains, Reclamation operates under a microscope and must weigh the competing demands of Montana vs. Wyoming, river anglers vs. reservoir boaters, as well as the National Park Service’s Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, which surrounds the canyon, and the adjoining Crow Tribe’s reservation.

“Reclamation continues to strive to work transparently with all stakeholders to manage the multiple uses and benefits of the Yellowtail Unit,” Jordan Clayton, of the Montana office of BOR, wrote in an email.

Working with those groups, Reclamation has repeatedly adjusted its operation plans, Clayton said, including in 2010, “minor revisions” in 2012 as well as in the fall of 2015.  

“There is an active effort by Reclamation to review the operating criteria for Yellowtail,” he said.

Yet Haacke said the agency has never replied to suggestions he made four years ago.

At the November meeting of the varied interests groups, Clayton said the agency announced an “independent internal review of the current criteria to determine if the original assumptions and expected outcomes are being realized, and if not, why.”

Haacke is suspicious of the agency having one of its own staff review the operating criteria, likening it to convicted financial swindler Bernie Madoff’s son reviewing his own father’s finances. Yet Haacke remains optimistic and has encouraged the agency to examine management of the entire river basin and not just Yellowtail Dam in isolation.

Hossfeld said he’s encouraged by the internal review, but said the agency also needs to be looking at short-term solutions since Bighorn reservoirs are already much fuller than usual for this time of the year and snowpack continues to build.

“That’s the urgency we’re trying to communicate,” he said. “It doesn’t look like we have that kind of time.”

All of the parties involved will be closely watching Reclamation’s review and the resulting outcome, if any, including one of Montana’s U.S. senators.

“The Bighorn River is a treasure and we need to ensure it's properly managed for future generations of Montanans,” Tester said.



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