Return of water to Madison’s tributaries will protect trout spawning and rearing habitat
8/21/2001 -- -- Tuesday, August 21, 2001
Bozeman, MT – A long-term water lease that will return water to three tributaries of the Madison River will have a significant impact on that river’s trout population, including imperiled populations of westslope and Yellowstone cutthroat trout, according to conservationists.
The lease, which has been agreed to by Roger Lang, the owner of Montana’s Sun Ranch, will provide 220 cubic feet per second of water to Trout Unlimited for Wolf Creek, Moose Creek, and Squaw Creek. The lease will not only protect water instream for spawning and rearing habitat for several species of trout migrating from the Madison River, it will also provide significant habitat improvement for trout that stay in the tributaries year-round, particularly in times of drought.
The decision of the Sun Ranch to lease water to a private, non-profit conservation group is precedent-setting as the largest lease of its kind, not only in Montana, but also in the West. Under laws governing water use in the arid western states, including Montana, water users who take water out of streams--for purposes ranging from irrigation to mining to municipal uses-- have an exclusive right to it. Under this system, the earliest users of water are entitled to all their water before other users (or the rivers themselves) get any water. Changes to Montana's water law now allow someone with a water right to lease their water for instream flow purposes, so that streamflows can be protected.
“This lease is truly historic. Not only is it the largest of its kind ever, it is a precedent-setting, collaborative effort between fisheries advocates and irrigated agricultural interests to do what is necessary to protect a significant Montana fishery,” said Laura Ziemer, Montana Director of Trout Unlimited's Western Water Project.
In addition to providing improved habitat for the westslope and Yellowstone cutthroat trout, the lease will also benefit rainbow trout and brown trout. Westslope and Yellowstone cutthroat trout are species of special concern in Montana because they are fish native to the state and are suffering from significant population declines.
Just a dozen years ago, the very concept of leasing water rights to maintain the flows of rivers and streams provoked a protracted and bitter debate in the Montana Legislature. In 1989, anglers and irrigators waged a pitched battle over a proposal to allow the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to conduct a limited pilot leasing program. In the end, legislation was eventually approved allowing the Department a four-year window of time within which to initiate and evaluate leases for the so-called instream flows. That window was later increased to ten years, and renewed in the 1999 session of the Montana Legislature.
Following sessions of the Legislature saw debate focused on the issue of the outright sale of water rights for instream flow purposes. While the public discussion was again rancorous, in 1995, the two sides of the debate put aside their differences and jointly supported legislation that would allow non-governmental groups such as Trout Unlimited to lease water rights for instream flows for up to ten years. In 2001, the legislature extended the terms for which water could be leased for such purposes to 30 years, if water conservation efforts make water available.
“The ability of Mr. Lang to lease a significant portion of his water to protect trout on the tributaries of the Madison River, including several imperiled species, while maintaining his cattle operation on the Ranch is an exemplary act of stewardship in this stunningly beautiful part of the country,” said Steve Moyer, head of national Trout Unlimited's conservation programs. “The formal announcement of this lease signifies a new era – an era in which agricultural and conservation interests have sought and achieved common ground to protect the interests we all have in maintaining Montana’s historic fishery.”
Attending today’s ceremony at the Sun Ranch announcing the historic water lease are a diverse group of agricultural and conservation interests including state leaders of the Farm Bureau, Stockgrowers Association, the Montana Water Resources Association, landowners and water users in the Madison valley, and the head of Trout Unlimited's conservation programs from the group's national office in Washington, D.C. Montana Lt. Governor Karl Ohs will also be speaking at today's event.
"This water lease to Trout Unlimited is part of my management philosophy of the ranch: work with my neighbors, maintain my cattle operation, and be good to the land," said Roger Lang, owner of the Sun Ranch. "I look forward to watching these streams recover and start to support the fishery that they once had."
Founded in 1959 in Grayling, Michigan, Trout Unlimited is the nation’s leading coldwater fisheries conservation organization. TU’s 130,000 members in 500 chapters nationwide are dedicated to the conservation, protection, and restoration of North America’s trout and salmon and their watersheds. The organization has approximately 2,500 members in Montana.
Laura Ziemer 406/522-7291 x. 100