Our History

Over 60 years of grassroots coldwater conservation…

Grassroots conservationists hatched the idea of Montana Trout Unlimited 60 years ago. It has been the power of grassroots anglers, river lovers and conservationists that has sustained and allowed the organization to meet new challenges ever since. Even establishing and growing MTU’s professional staff was orchestrated and initially funded by chapter members and leaders across the state. From preventing dams on some of Montana’s most iconic trout rivers to establishing the best-in-the-nation Stream Access Law, ensuring that Montana’s streams and rivers are sustained through management and habitat improvement for wild and native trout, and working with all water users to ensure that our trout waters stay cold and clean for the next generation is the result of MTU’s continued commitment to grassroots leadership and true collaboration. Our work to care for Montana’s water resources has always, and will always be rooted in people like you, who share our mission, and devote your hard-earned time and treasure to conserving, protecting and restoring coldwater fisheries for now, and for always. Thank you!

Montana Trout Unlimited: 1964 – 2024

Dan Bailey, MTU cofounder

1959 – Trout Unlimited formed in Grayling, Michigan. The intent is to create a national conservation group that advocates for wild trout and sustainable trout fishing.  

1962-3 – TU members in Livingston and West Yellowstone, including Dan Bailey, Bud Lilly and Bud Morris, begin forming the Montana Chapter of Trout Unlimited. First chapter meeting held at Chico Hot Springs. Bud Lilly elected president; Bud Morris, vice president. 

1964 – Trout Unlimited national formally charters the Montana Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Montana TU officially created.  

1965 – Trout Unlimited’s magazine, Trout, features stories on TU opposition to dams proposed for the Middle Fork and South Forks of the Flathead River in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  

1966 – TU national holds its first annual meeting in Butte. Defeating a federal proposal to construct the Reichle Dam on the Big Hole River is named the top priority.  

1966 – Montana Fish and Game biologist Dick Vincent begins first wild fish experiments in the Madison River drainage. 

1967 – Montana Congressman Arnie Olsen introduces legislation to construct the Reichle Dam. TU-led battle for the Big Hole heats up.  

1968 – Second TU chapter formed in Montana: The Livingston-based Yellowstone Chapter.  

Late-1960s – The long-standing U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proposal to dam the Yellowstone River at Allenspur heats up. TU leads opposition. Bozeman and West Yellowstone TU members form the Madison-Gallatin Chapter. TU advocates for catch-and-release, fights to clean up Yellowstone from municipal sewer discharges, and resists industrial logging in the upper Madison and Gallatin drainages.  

1969 – Lewistown-based Spring Creek Chapter of TU formed. 

Early 1970s – West Slope and Beartooth Chapters formed (the latter eventually morphs into the Magic City Fly Fishers, an FFF affiliate).  

1972 – Butte-based River Rat Chapter of TU formed. George Grant edits its newsletter, the River Rat. It soon becomes the official publication of the Montana Council of TU, formally a chapter but now the statewide umbrella group for all TU chapters.  

1974 – Bitter Root Chapter formed. 

1974 – After much controversy, the Montana Fish and Game Commission, at the urging of TU, halts fish stocking in lieu of wild fish management on the Madison River, and soon after adopts this ground-breaking policy for all rivers and streams. The policy stands today.  

1975 – TU leaders Tony Schoonen, George Grant and others convince the Montana Legislature to pass the landmark Streambed and Land Preservation Act (the “310 law), which requires conservation district approval for stream modifications.  

1975 – TU Member and Montana House Representative Al Luebeck introduces the first stream access bill in the Montana Legislature.  

Mid-1970s – U.S. Bureau of Reclamation revives the Reichle Dam proposal. Butte-based TU members lead a campaign with local ranchers that convince Senators Lee Metcalf and Mike Mansfield to kill the proposal. 

1979 – A large campaign led by Montana Fish and Game with TU’s help establishes instream flow water reservations along the Yellowstone River, confounding plans of energy companies to dry up the iconic river. The Allenspur Dam proposal is also killed for good.  

Late-1970s – A major stream access controversy emerges when several landowners attempt to prevent public use of the Beaverhead and Dearborn Rivers. Butte-area TU members organize the Montana Coalition for Stream Access.  

1981 – Stan Bradshaw, a young Montana Fish and Game attorney and future TU stalwart, files a natural resource damage claim under federal Superfund law citing historical damages to the Clark Fork River and surrounding landscape caused by the Anaconda Company and its predecessor. Several decades later settlement of the litigation results in hundreds of millions of dollars that Montana TU helps target for restoration. 

1984 – Solid legal work by Bozeman attorney Jim Goetz convinces the Montana Supreme Court to rule in favor of his client, the Montana Coalition for Stream Access. The justices declare that the public can use all natural streams in the state for recreation, irrespective of who owns the bed and banks.  

1985 – Montana Legislature codifies the court’s stream access decision, defining the limits of stream access. The nation’s best law guaranteeing public access to rivers is created.  

1985 – West Slope Chapter and several other conservation groups file lawsuit preventing siting of 500 KV BPA power line in Rock Creek. Suit is settled, resulting in $1.6 million trust fund for conservation of Rock Creek.  

Mid-1980s – West Slope Chapter fends off development that could harm Rock Creek; the Bitter Root Chapter promotes an agreement that dedicates 10,000 acre-feet of stored water to in stream flows in the Bitterroot River; the Northwest Chapter of TU (now the Flathead Valley Chapter) fights for improved forest practices; and, the Kootenai Fly Fishers Chapter helps defeat a proposed re-regulating dam on the Kootenai River. 

1987 – Big Blackfoot Chapter of TU formed with an immediate mission to improve the river’s diminished fishery, advance cleanup of historical mining wastes and defeat open-pit gold mines proposed for the river’s headwaters.  

1989 – After much resistance from agriculture, Montana TU helps advance legislation allowing Montana FWP to lease water rights for instream flow.  

1994 – Montana TU hires its first full-time executive director. Lewis and Clark Chapter formed by members in Twin Bridges and Sheridan.  

1995 – Whirling disease discovered in the Madison River, leading to a 95-percent decline in the river’s rainbow trout population. TU national, Montana TU and the Madison-Gallatin Chapter respond by leading efforts to establish a research initiative to combat the problem.  

1995 – Montana Legislature approves two TU priority bills that have proved crucial for fishery restoration: One establishes the Future Fisheries Improvement Program; the other allows private interests such as TU to lease water rights for instream flows.  

1995 – Montana TU helps start the Big Hole Watershed Committee, the result of anglers and irrigators deciding to sit down and work collaboratively to protect and improve fisheries in the aftermath of severe drought years.  

1996 – TU national names Montana TU’s publication Trout Line state council newsletter of the year.  

1997 – West Slope Chapter’s formal intervention in federal licensing of Kerr Dam helps lead to improved operations that benefit fish in the lower Flathead River.   

1998 – Montana TU and the Big Blackfoot Chapter support the successful ballot initiative I-137 that prohibits new open-pit, cyanide heap leach mines in Montana, thereby protecting the Blackfoot River from a disastrous proposal.  

1998 – TU national names Montana TU its outstanding state council.  

1999 – Montana TU, the Idaho state council of TU  and TU national help negotiate a precedent-setting settlement to relicensing Avista Corp’s two dams on the lower Clark Fork, resulting in tens of millions of dollars dedicated to restoration of native trout.  

2001 – Montana TU partners with TU national to create the Jefferson River Restoration Project, a venture that eventually leads to major improvements in the river’s trout fishery.  

2004 – Montana TU leads the effort to defeat an industry-funded ballot initiative, I-147, aimed at allowing an open-pit cyanide leach mine in the headwaters of the Big Blackfoot River.   

2004 – Montana TU organizes a Youth Conservation and Angling Camp, an endeavor that continues today.  

2006 – Montana TU prevails in a landmark Montana Supreme Court case establishing that groundwater connected to surface water is subject to basin closures on new surface-water rights.  

2007 – Montana Legislature ratifies a water compact between the State and U.S. Forest Service. It includes significant instream flow measures added by Montana TU.  

2009 – Montana TU leads efforts resulting in passage of a bill in the Legislature affirming the rights of recreationists to use county bridge rights-of-ways to enter rivers.  

2009 – Trout magazine names Montana TU’s executive director one of the 10 most influential people in the national organization’s first 50 years.  

2009 – U.S. Senator Jon Tester introduces the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, a bill aimed at restoring damaged habitat and protecting headwater wildlands and which Montana TU and its conservation partners crafted after years of negotiation.  

2011 – Montana TU’s lobbying and organizing of grassroots leads to defeat of the so-called “ditch bill,” which aimed to undermine the state’s stream access law.  

2013 – Data indicate that gillnet removal of lake trout at Yellowstone Lake is starting to benefit the lake’s dwindling cutthroat population, affirming the advocacy of Montana TU and its Wyoming counterpart that this management measure is necessary.  

2014 – Permanent cleanup and restoration commences in the mining-damaged headwaters of the Blackfoot River, culminating more than 25 years of Montana TU advocacy to fix a toxic legacy.   

2015 – The CSKT-MT Water Compact, which includes instream flow rights, was ratified by the Montana Legislature (subsequently ratified by US Congress through legislation known as the MT Water Rights Protection Act, in 2020) with support by Montana TU. 

2017 – After nearly a quarter century leading Montana TU, Executive Director Bruce Farling retires, and MTU hires its Conservation Director, David Brooks to follow in Farling’s footsteps as Executive Director. 

2018 – The Montana State Council is honored to have its first female chair in Joe Brooks chapter member Sharon Sweeney-Fee. 

2019 – MTU creates a new Jefferson Watershed Program to focus on flow and trout habitat projects in the Beaverhead, Ruby, Big Hole and Jefferson River basins through the work of a new MTU project manager based in Dillon, MT. 

2019 – The Montana legislature extends the sunset (for another decade) on MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks instream flow water leasing with the help of MTU’s lobbying efforts. 

2020 – MTU helps lead the campaign to protect the Smith River from a major copper mine proposed in its Sheep Creek headwaters. The State of Montana receives more than 10,000 comments in opposition to the mine during the environmental assessment process, yet still permits the Black Butte Copper mine.  

2020 – US Congress passes the Great American Outdoors Act, which includes permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a boon to conservation of lands and fishing access, confirming MTU’s long-term advocacy on these federal priorities. 

2021 (and 2023) – MT Trout Unlimited and many TU members in Montana help defend Montana’s Stream Access Law against numerous attacks in the state legislature. 

2022 – MTU and partners win a Meagher County district court challenge that revokes the Black Butte Copper mine permit (for a proposed mine in the headwaters of the Smith River) in 2022, which was later overturned by the MT Supreme Court in 2024. 

2023 – MTU adds a Climate Change Coordinator position to staff.  

2023 – With strong advocacy from MTU and TU national’s water programs in Montana, the state legislature and MT Department of Natural Resources and Conservation reduce the timeline to change a water right to instream flow, which makes securing water for fish more efficient. 

2024 – MTU hires a second Project Manager to concentrate on watersheds in south central Montana, increasing full-time staff to 7 employees.