The river comes last

  • Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Clara Nomee, chairwoman of the Crow Tribe

    George Schunk photo
  • John Chaffin, an attorney for the Department of the Interior

    George Schunk photo
 

Deep in the Wyoming wilderness and high above tree line, glacial cirques collect and funnel pure alpine waters from Cloud Peak's 13,000-foot summit down to the muddy torrent of the Bighorn River. Draining north into Montana, the river transects the Crow Indian reservation, where it is joined by the Little Bighorn, famous as the site of "Custer's Last Stand." Finally, the Bighorn merges with the Yellowstone just downstream from Pompey's Pillar, a rock formation that bears the carved initials from the 1805 Lewis and Clark expedition.

Much has changed since Lewis and Clark crossed the uncharted wilderness that was to become Montana. Crow Indians still speak the language of their ancestors, but the thundering buffalo herds that once formed the center of their "wheel of life" have vanished. And the "furious and formidable" plains grizzlies that terrified the Corps of Discovery are gone, their remnants driven into remote mountain ranges.

Even the Bighorn itself has changed. Nearly half of the islands and gravel bars that once filled the river's braided channels are gone, their riparian habitat lost to Yellowtail Dam's regulated outflows. But in exchange, cold, clear water pouring from the depths of the 70-mile-long reservoir has created one of the finest wild trout fisheries in the world.

Where buffalo calves once drank from a plains stream, drift boats packed with fly anglers now compete for trout that commonly exceed 4 pounds. With up to 7,000 catchable browns and rainbows per mile, it is no wonder this productive waterway hosts more than 100,000 angler days a year. This activity generates $18 million annually in an area where, as one local legislator put it, "the economy sucks." In a state ravaged by boom and bust industries and ranked at the bottom nationally in wages and per capita income, the fishery offers a welcome and much needed form of sustainable economic activity.

Given the world-class status of the fishery and the economic value to the state, it would seem an obvious public policy goal to protect this resource. So why did Montana's Legislature recently ratify a water compact with the Crow Nation that doesn't protect the Bighorn's fish? The answer, like the compact itself, is complex.

A "miracle" agreement

Montana, like most Western states, wrestles with who owns what water and whether "paper rights' correlate with actual use and availability. This is important because those with water rights get to take a certain amount of water from the river, lake or ground and use it for irrigating crops or for a wide variety of industrial and domestic purposes. Collectively, these activities are known as "consumptive use" and they sometimes suck rivers dry.

The opposite of "consumptive use" is "instream flows," which means leaving water in the streams for the fish. While some consider this a waste of good water and a luxury arid lands cannot afford, it is increasingly common to view a healthy river and fishery as a value worth protecting. Under the Crow Compact, all valid, existing consumptive water rights are guaranteed, yet no instream flow rights protect the Bighorn's trout.

The promise to honor all existing water rights was probably enough to garner the votes necessary to ratify the compact, and other agreements addressing long-standing disputes "sweetened the pot" for compact supporters.

One side deal settles a major Crow lawsuit against the state. For 20 years, the tribe has sought hundreds of millions in compensation for what it believes was illegal state taxation of Crow coal. In the out-of-court settlement, the state agrees to pay the tribe $15 million over 15 years and promises not to tax Crow coal in the future. The tribe, besides dropping the lawsuit, agrees to use the payments for economic development and water and sewer infrastructure on the reservation.

Another side agreement could settle a long-standing contention that the federal government did not enforce limits on how much reservation land could be owned by non-Indians. If everything goes as planned, the tribe will get a share of hydroelectric revenues from Yellowtail Dam that it will use to buy back non-Indian lands within reservation boundaries.

"I believe in miracles," said Clara Nomee, Madame Chairman of the Crow tribe, "and putting the compact together in 8 months was a miracle. Negotiating solutions to any one of these issues usually takes years, not months."

Fish dealt a bad hand

Some, however, think the short time frame had more to do with political term limits than miracles. The governor, attorney general and most of Montana's legislative leaders have held office for much of the last decade and are now "termed out."

In a state where the "Indian vote" can sway an election, having a role in a major negotiated tribal settlement can help candidates running for a new office. In addition, Nomee has been under federal investigation for possible misuse of tribal funds, and a popular settlement won't hurt her, either.

High Country News Classifieds
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.