Tribe calls dam a trout trap


The Blackfeet Tribe's Fish and Game Department wants to remove a 95-year-old dam on its reservation that backs water up three miles into Glacier National Park.

Getting rid of aging Sherburne Dam, says Blackfeet biologist Ira New Breast, would eliminate the biggest threat to the St. Mary River's bull trout, a population recently added to the federal endangered species list.

"We have hard data on what the dam does to bull trout," he says. "One (radio-collared) fish spent the entire season under the dam, and two died below."

Taking out the dam would affect more than fish. The Bureau of Reclamation owns and operates the earthen structure on the reservation, and water behind it is stored for irrigators in Canada and eastern Montana. Through a complicated system of ditches and channels, the water makes its way into Canada and then back down into Montana, where it's used by wheat growers near Havre.

New Breast acknowledges that dumping the dam would precipitate a messy water-rights scramble. But it's one that could potentially benefit the tribe, which now gets no water from the dam on its land. An international treaty, drafted in the 1900s, still regulates where the stored water goes.

"There was across-the-board discrimination and we were left out of that treaty," says New Breast. "We'd like it to be revisited."

The BuRec hasn't considered dam removal, says the agency's Rick Blaskovitch, but is studying ways to improve the dam's fish-friendliness. Installing new gates on the dam, for example, would help to ensure adequate winter water flow for trout living downstream from the dam.

Lynn Kaeding, a federal biologist, adds that delivering water to irrigators gets tricky without the dam to store water. It could mean pumping water directly out of the river, even in dry months when the water levels are already low. If the dam is removed, says Kaeding, there's the potential to "end up with something that's more damaging to bull trout than the current situation."

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Ali Macalady

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