Fish fare well at 2019 Montana Legislature

Our efforts in the 2019 Montana Legislature paid off.  Literally.  This session we led sporting and conservation groups’ efforts to secure the most responsible fish and wildlife budgets that have passed the legislature in decades.  Specifically, we restored cuts that important projects and agency divisions suffered in the last biennium.

MTU’s Clayton Elliott worked to assure that Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ (FWP) Fisheries Division has funding to fully staff its native fish program, including an additional full-time position.  We got money returned to FWP’s stream gauge budget, as well as a first-ever investment in the department’s instream flow lease program.  We helped bolster funding for FWP to complete drought management plans that will benefit fisheries statewide.  Our work on HB2, the general budget bill, resulted in restoration of the state’s hatchery program, which was cut in 2017 leading to a 50% cut in the rainbow trout stocking in upper Missouri reservoirs. Plus we got $1.2 million for new state hatchery infrastructure that includes native trout cultivation for restoration work.  The 2019 FWP budget includes additional money ($300,000) for acquiring fishing access sites (FAS) or paying for long-term FAS leases, which is on top of the $2.05 million we helped acquire for maintaining and enhancing current FAS.  We helped repair a budgeting problem that required FWP’s enforcement staff to spend nearly a third of their time doing habitat work, rather than fisheries enforcement and FAS monitoring – their actual job. 

Unfortunately, the legislature failed to see the value in restoring funding from the Smith River special revenue account to fund the Smith River ranger program, but we remain confident the department will be able to find resources for these critical positions during peak use.   Similar to our work on FWP budgets, we helped ensure that the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s (DNRC) will get back its full funding for stream gauges that was cut in 2017, as well as its funding for implementing existing water compacts and managing water right permits or change applications.

Habitat Montana is a critical program that uses sportsman dollars to improve habitat and provide access for Montana’s hunters and anglers across the state. This 20-year old program has been an undeniable success for sportsmen, landowners, and our fish and wildlife resources. While past legislatures have made attempts to block or restrict how the agency uses these funds, we were able protect full spending authority of $8 million, meaning the agency will have the resources it needs to protect hundreds more acres over the next two years. 

MTU works with our national organization, Trout Unlimited, on a number of restoration projects each year, including leading the effort to lobby the legislature in support of two critical funding sources – the Renewable Resources Grant and Loan Program and the Reclamation and Development Grant Program.  This year, our partners in the Upper Clark Fork Program at TU applied for funding from those programs for three projects.  We successfully shepherded those projects through the legislative process, resulting in $125,000 for the removal of the Rattlesnake Dam, $437,000 for the Ninemile Restoration Project, and $285,000 for the Silver King Mine Reclamation. Through these projects, TU will continue to employ dozens of local contractors, improve functionality for landowners and irrigators, and restore critical native fish habitat in the upper Clark Fork benefitting westslope cutthroat and bull trout.

If you’re a hunter or angler you will see a much-needed overhaul of the state’s Automated Licensing System (originally built in 1998) that will make it more user-friendly because of the legislative funding for technology upgrades. 

As anglers, we will also continue to see a more robust aquatic invasive species (AIS) program because of our work this session.  The successful AIS bill extends the program implemented by DNRC and FWP that mandates boat check stations, advanced monitoring of at-risk water bodies, and increased outreach to water users.  The associated AIS funding bill reduced the fees on the angler AIS licenses for non-residents and youth anglers.  It implements a new AIS prevention pass required for out-of-state watercraft, and an additional registration fee for new motorized, resident watercraft. Large hydropower facilities will continue to contribute to AIS prevention.  MTU is proud of our work with a diverse coalition of stakeholders to help craft this balanced approach to funding that recognizes our shared concern for shared resources, and that proves we should all have some skin in the game.  We are similarly encouraged by other budgetary successes that reflect our willingness and ability to work with diverse interests, one bill at a time.  In total, MTU led the effort to secure over $40 million more than was appropriated in 2017 for Montana’s fish and wildlife resources and public access over the next two years.

Our policy work this session was a mix of pluses and minuses.  We led the effort to protect FWP’s ability to own and lease instream flow rights for the purposes of fishery health. This has been a successful program for 30 years that allows willing water right owners to sell or lease their water to FWP as a willing buyer.  We worked with partners to protect senior water rights and the Montana Water Use Act. In addition to restoring stream gauge funding, we helped move a bill that creates a new stream gauge oversight committee, including representation from nonprofit and government entities, which will help ensure these important water measurement tools remain funded into the future.

Lastly, there were no major rollbacks to the laws that protect our coldwater fisheries from the potential damages caused by irresponsible hard rock mining. MTU worked with partners to ensure that the laws, like the recently used “bad actor” provision, were protected by attacks from the mining industry and their legislative allies.  The legislature did pass one bill, HB 722, dealing with the transfer of hard rock mining permits.  We worked behind-the-scenes with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to ensure the bill has adequate sideboards to protect the taxpayers from unfair bond forfeiture and our waterways from potential pollution.

That’s a wrap from the 2019 legislature.  If you have thoughts or questions, please feel free to contact Clayton Elliott (MTU) or Colin Cooney (TU), although after spending 90 long days in the Capitol, they might be gone fishing for a bit.  Well deserved.

How You Can Help Save the Smith

If you care about the Smith River, we encourage you to write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, as well as to Governor Steve Bullock, your representatives, and also to Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).  While DEQ is no longer accepting comments on the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the large copper mine a foreign-owned company is proposing in the headwaters of the Smith River, they still need to hear from you. The EIS process is meant to evaluate the real risks this mine poses to the surrounding environment, especially water and wildlife, as well as the recreational economy connected to the Smith River. However, we feel this EIS drastically misses the mark and we will be seeking legal recourse to protect the Smith any way we can.

In its Final EIS, DEQ claims that this mine will not harm the Smith River.  A closer look at the EIS says otherwise.  Here are significant reasons that this is the wrong mine in the wrong place:

  1. This mine seriously risks reducing flows and increasing pollution of the Smith River’s most important trout spawning tributary. The company and the DEIS grossly underestimate how much groundwater connected to the Smith River headwaters will flow into the mine and have to be treated to remove contamination.
  2. The water the company plans to pump back into Smith River tributaries so they don’t dry up due to mining activities is highly likely to contain more acidity, nitrate, and toxins than the DEIS admits. In addition, that replacement water will be warmer than natural stream water. All of those changes in water quality are harmful to aquatic life, fish, and stream habitat.
  3. The company and DEQ haven’t properly considered how to keep contamination from mine waste out of groundwater and surface water that will flow into the Smith River system. They also have failed to evaluate the high likelihood that wastes from this mine will create acid mine drainage laden with arsenic and other mine contaminants.
  4. The company’s plans to keep mine waste and the contaminants it produces from adversely affecting the environment for decades or generations is very experimental. They provide no good evidence that it will work.  The Smith River is their guinea pig.
  5. An EIS is required to take “hard look” at the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of the proposed action. However, the DEIS has not properly or sufficiently examined threats to the aquatic life in the Smith River and its tributaries.

Need help drafting you letter or knowing where to send it? Contact our Outreach Coordinator for assistance. Email [email protected] for more information and assistance. Please see the addresses below for places to direct your comments.

Last but not least, our legal challenge of the EIS will require attorney’s fees, expert witnesses, and many other expenses. Visit our Donation Page to make a contribution for our effort to Save Our Smith.

Governor Steve Bullock
PO Box 200801
Helena MT 59620-0801

Craig Jones
Department of Environmental Quality
P.O. Box 200901
Helena, MT 59601

What happens when the ore is gone?

Mountain West News highlights what happens when mining operations close up shop.  The legacy of hard rock mining continues to haunt the West.  The boom and bust cycles of hard rock mining, poor regulation and the protection of bankruptcy shift costs to taxpayers and the environmental damage persists forever.  Read more here. 

The Smith River needs your voice – comment on the draft EIS today.

The channels and braids mirror our veins, giving our hearts a purpose.  The veins of copper ore are not where the real treasure lies.  It is the alchemy of the river that will continue to change us infinitely if we let it – Laura Churchman

Laura Churchman’s stirring op-ed strikes to the heart of why the Smith River is so important to preserve.  This place of infinite, restorative beauty is under threat.  We are calling on all of you, lovers of the river, to raise their voices against the mine that threatens to irreparably damage the Smith River drainage.

How can you help?

Attend an informational session about the mine and the recently released Draft EIS on May 6, 2019, Garden City Harvest Meeting Room, 1657 River Road, Missoula, MT

Submit official comments advocating for the Smith River to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality by emailing [email protected].  Visit smithriverwatch.org in the coming weeks if you would like substantive talking points to make your comment stronger.

Attend one of three public hearings to provide your comment in person:

  • April 24, 2019 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at Great Falls High School Upper Field House, 1900 5th Ave., (entrance to the south side of the building, at the intersection of 5th Ave. South and 19th Street), Great Falls, Montana
  • April 29, 2019 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at Park High School, 102 View Vista Dr., Livingston, Montana
  • April 30, 2019 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at the White Sulphur Springs High School, 405 S. Central Ave., White Sulphur Springs, Montana

Or, get online for one of two webinars offered by the Montana DEQ. Registration can be completed by following this link.

And next time you’re on Facebook, Instagram, other social media, or just talking to friends, family or strangers face-to-face, spread the word.  The DEQ needs to hear from you.  The Smith River needs you.

Golden Sunlight Mine set to end operations

As Montana’s Golden Sunlight mine prepares to close, the mine manager reminds us that the closure is happening because “It’s a nonrenewable resource.” Once there isn’t enough gold to be profitable, it’s over…except for the polluted water, which “will have to be pumped and treated in perpetuity.” The jobs and tax base disappear but the toxic water and the cost of treating it remain, forever.

Because this mine is perched above the Jefferson river, how the company plans to treat and dispose of its never-ending source of polluted water will be critical.

Read more about the closure in this article by Susan Dunlap at the Montana Standard.