Category: Ecology

Crisis on Montana’s Madison River highlights how far humans will go to rescue fish

Courtesy The Slide Inn

Editor’s Note: I wanted to run this because it shows what extraordinary lengths people will go to in trying to protect fish. This story is from the famous Galloup’s Slide Inn on Montana’s Madison River.

By now many of you are aware of the events that transpired over the last several days, but we will give you a short summary just in case you missed it. In the early morning hours of Nov.30, flows out of Hebgen Dam dropped from 640 cfs to under 200 cfs in a matter of a few minutes. This gave the fish populations inhabiting the stretch between the Dam and Earthquake Lake very little time to search out deeper water, and many became stranded in channels and small puddles among the larger rocks.

We did not become aware of the situation until it was brought up by one of our customers around 9 a.m. and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks was contacted immediately in order to get in touch with NorthWestern Energy. Other Fly Shops and friends were contacted shortly thereafter in order to get the word out, and we headed upstream to investigate. What we found was heart breaking, as there were trout, whitefish and sculpin trapped in small areas throughout that entire system. There were a handful of fish that had died as well, but the biggest area of concern were the large spawning areas that were now completely out of the water.

We continued to pick up as many fish as we could, and got them back into the main river. By now word was getting around and we would soon have people from West Yellowstone and Ennis coming to help relocate these stranded fish. By 1 p.m. Montana FWP, Northwestern Energy and more volunteers were on the scene. NorthWestern Energy would later announce that the drop in water was due to a damaged gate component, and that repair crews would be working through the night until they were able to raise the gates up. Later that afternoon they were able to increase the flows to 248 cfs by releasing water over the emergency spillway, but all we could do was watch the USGS gauge above the West Fork continue to drop. At around 4 p.m. MT FWP stopped by the shop to bring us up to speed, and to tell us we were now in recovery mode — Meaning that they needed volunteers to walk the banks starting the morning of Dec. 1 to help relocate any stranded fish.
It was a long night for many of us, as we hoped that the water would stay high enough to cover the primary spawning areas between the Slide Area and Ennis Lake. There was a very real possibility that many of these areas would be exposed to cold air and suffer a similar fate to the areas between the lakes. We woke in the morning and got out to the river. The areas between Lyon’s Bridge and Ennis were far better than expected, and while it was obviously extremely shallow, there was still plenty of water running from bank to bank.

It became apparent to most of the volunteers that day that the areas that needed the most attention were upstream from Lyon’s Bridge. Many people split into teams and walked the banks up and downstream from the major access sites such as Raynold’s Bridge, Three Dollar, Pine Butte and the West Fork.
Courtesy The Slide Inn

Our crew went downstream from Three Dollar to Pine Butte on both sides of the river, and we were actually pleasantly surprised at the conditions. About 95% of the prime spawning areas were still underwater, and there were very few stranded fish in the channels. There were a lot of sculpin that needed a hand to get back into the main river, but we did not encounter any dead fish. The two areas that were hit the hardest in this stretch were two channels located approximately one mile above Pine Butte as you can see in the pictures below.

The Channels from the West Fork up to Eagles Nest on the other side of the river also faced similar conditions but we did not encounter many stranded trout there. The channels from the Slide Inn down to Raynold’s Bridge did have stranded fish and thanks to all of the people out there yesterday, many of them were returned to the main channel. Unfortunately we did lose a lot eggs in this stretch, as most of the channels were dry and there were a lot of sculpin that needed to be rescued from underneath dry rocks.

Courtesy The Slide Inn
As the sun started to dip behind the horizon, we all headed back to our trucks after a long day on the river. The amount of people who showed up to help was absolutely incredible. Not only did the locals show up in force but we had folks from every corner of the state willing to lend a hand … it was just incredible to see.

Once we got to the shop, we heard that NorthWestern Energy had a new gate component en route from Anaconda and that the flow could be restored shortly if the installation was successful. I know a lot of us were still nervous, as the water levels continued to drop ever so slightly at the Kirby gauge above the West Fork. If the river dropped below 300 cfs a lot of the spawning gravel in the Three Dollar Bridge area would be exposed, so we really needed the dam to return to normal flows as soon as possible.

As fate would have it, we all woke up early to check on the progress and when the numbers 640 appeared on the Hebgen gauge, there was a giant sigh of relief. Water levels had also stayed above 300 cfs at the Kirby gauge throughout the night and we did not have a hard frost. Upon further investigation, NorthWestern Energy had repaired the dam just before midnight and water levels were already starting to come up around Raynold’s Bridge by 8 a.m.
In summary, a very large percentage of our spawning beds are safe and sound from Quake Lake all the way down to Ennis Lake. The areas that suffered the highest mortality of fish, eggs, and bug life were Between the Lakes, The Slide Area down to Raynold’s Bridge, and a few channels between the West Fork and Eagle’s Nest. It will take a few years to see what kind of impact the last 48 hours has had on this fishery, but at least we can all breath a little easier today.

Lastly, thank you to EVERYONE for their help. You have no idea how much it meant to see all of you lining the banks and helping out the Upper Madison when it needed it the most.

— The Slide Inn

Got a question? Ask nature says “It’s time to ask nature” and after spending some time with the collection of thousands of nature’s solutions to problems, I heartily agree.

As the site proclaims, “If the history of life on Earth were put to a 24‑hour clock, humans would have been here shaping the world for mere seconds. As latecomers, it’s time to begin asking the rest of our complex planetary family how to build a more resilient, regenerative, and beautiful world.”

Click on this free online tool and type a question, “Conserve water,” for example, or “Protect from pathogens.”

This morning’s favorite was how to stop plastic pollution in rivers from reaching the ocean. The “floating coconet” mimics rows of fins inspired by the manta ray and basking shark to collect small pieces of plastic.

It’s an engrossing Sunday read.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Forest Service to demolish 13 more dams in Cleveland National Forest

Screen Shot 2020-04-01 at 4.27.11 PM
Courtesy of The Revelator


Thanks to Steve Kuchenski for passing along this hopeful news from The Revelator. Read the entire post here.

Removing one gigantic dam can have a massive effect on restoring a river ecosystem.

But bringing down more than 80 smaller dams? That can also cause a transformation.

This spring the Forest Service, aided by U.S. Marine Corps members, will blast apart 13 more dams in the Trabuco ranger district inSouthern California’s Cleveland National Forest.

It’s the last phase of a groundbreaking project that began more than five years ago to remove a total of 81 dams from four streams in the mountains of Orange County.

South Gate’s $20 million Urban Orchard Project could be local model for species recovery

The Arroyo Chub is one of the native species that The City of South Gate and The Trust for Public Land will raise after the completion of the $20 million Urban Orchard Project. ( courtesy UC Davis)

Another sign of hope for the LA River, turning an abandoned lot into a fishery for arroyo chub and rainbow trout.

One question: Where will the trout go once they’ve been raised? The water temperature is way too hot to return them to the river. Here’s the full story from the Los Angeles Times.

The city of South Gate plans to transform a weedy and rutted field overlooking an industrialized stretch of the Los Angeles River into a sylvan retreat boasting a nursery for rare native fish that thrived before the explosive growth of Southern California after World War II.

The $20-million Urban Orchard Project is slated to sprout on 7 acres of undeveloped city property sandwiched between the 710 Freeway and the river and surrounded by electrical power-line towers, truck yards, mobile homes, manufacturing plants and some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the state.


See you on the river, Jim Burns


Great article! I hope this is a success and makes other cites do similar projects long the shores of their urban waterways; bring nature back, the birds, the fish and the pants and improving our green spaces, is a win for everyone.

Holiday twofer: Zinke out; rockfish in

Ever since I read the awesome “The Feather Thief” earlier in the year, I’ve been on an extinction reading kick. It’s depressing. 

Kirk Wallace Johnson devotes a lot of pages to acquainting readers with biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection, along with Charles Darwin. Of course, Darwin is the name we remember but the story of Wallace and the doomed Birds of Paradise in the 19th century makes for a page turner, so much so that I continued the through line with other authors. 

First came Melanie Challenger’s “On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature.” Challenger is a poet and skillfully takes the reader along a time line that leads from her grandmother’s favorite wild flower on England’s Berkshire Downs, the common dog-violet, to a global tour that takes her to extinction events in Antactica, First Nations, Canada and Manhattan. Much of the book chronicles the annihilation of the natural world. It’s depressing in a beautiful, lyrical way, full of the care for our language few except a poet possess.

Next, I read “The Sixth Extinction” by the equally lyrical Elizabeth Kolbert. But, whereas Challenger is a poet, Kolbert, a writer for the New Yorker, is a journalist. Another amazing work, this one takes the reader through geologic time, punctuated with scientists who are meticulously documenting this time dubbed “Anthropocene,” and you realize that we live an age of nearly unprecedented extinction. I always wondered what happened to the frogs in our own Frogtown. My friend Ban once recounted how there used to be so many frogs on the streets that in some seasons it was nearly impossible not to step on them. Now, they’re gone, and, thanks to Kolbert, I know why. It’s depressing. 

Finally, I’m a third of the way through Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.”  It started out brighter than the other two, engaging the reader with such items as “the gossip theory” for why humans went from middling predators to the top of the food chain. But, once again, as the pages mounted, the message became equally dire. It’s a historical who done it, where the bad guys are us. Yup, depressing.  

So, it was with great holiday pleasure that I paged through the print Los Angeles Times this morning, to find two memorable events: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is following former scandal-plagued Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruit out the revolving Trump door, pursued by a cloud of more than a dozen ethics violations. Here’s a summary of what he did during his close to two years in office. Top of mind for me was his tone deaf response to millions of comments asking him not to recommend shrinking Bear’s Ears National Monument. 

But the real good news (both Pruit’s as well as Zinke’s probable replacement are nickers’ deep in coal and gas industry ties) is the return of commercial and recreational fishing for rock fish off the Southern California coast.  The feds just increased the catch rate on some rock fish populations by 100 percent or more because of the success of rebuilding those stocks. That translates to jobs, estimated at 640, revenue, estimated at $44 million and local red snapper back on dinner plates. 

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Single-use plastic straws may join plastic bags in LA

An estimated 18 billion pounds of plastic waste pollutes the world’s oceans each year. (Courtesy Panorama Magazine)

In 2010, after falling in love with the LA River, I got worked up about plastic bags and was mostly happy to start carrying my own to the grocery store. There was a howl of protest as the plastic consumer noose tightened, first with California cities creating a patchwork of regulation, then counties, and finally voters approved a statewide ban in 2016. Now, if you want a bag at the store, it will cost you 10 cents. 

Back then, I wrote: 
As a fly fisherman, you know you’re sick and tired of seeing trash in the Glendale Narrows, especially after a storm. So it should be worth it to either take your friggin’ bags with you on grocery runs, or pony up the dime that grocery stores will be able to charge for green bags.

Next up, single-use plastic straws. Yesterday, the LA City Council voted 12-0 to move forward to ban them by 2021. Reversing the earlier governmental patchwork plastic bag trend, the city council action comes before a statewide ban goes into effect Jan. 1, one in which you’ll have to ask for that straw. In what could be a game changer, and will incur the wrath of the fast-food industry, the Los Angeles ban could include fast food outlets, which, incredibly, are currently exempted by the upcoming state law

Responding to pressure from a proposed European Union ban, McDonald’s has already tested paper straws in Great Britain and Belgium, according to the Business Insider.

Single-use plastic straws may be banned in LA. (Photo illustration courtesy of Panorama Magazine)

Then there’s the microplastics issue, in which fish digest small amounts of plastic that then never leave their bodies, causing a host of problems, including organ damage and reproduction. And, if you eat fish, you may also be eating plastics.

As a fly fisher who has walked our river in hope of a better future, I know we can do better.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Hey, where’d my run go?

Here’s the view Saturday afternoon from the Hwy 2 overpass looking south into the LA River. Note that there’s been grading activity on the eastern side of the riverbed.                           (Courtesy Steve Kuchenski)

Pasadena Casting Club Conservation Committee member Steve Kuchenski and I talked about this at the Faire yesterday in Glendale, and he was nice enough to share this image with readers. Several times, places I’ve loved to fish on the LA have either been disrupted by Army Corps bulldozers, or swept away in high flows, due to winter rains and a lack of actual riverbed structure. Anybody remember the great bass disappearance from a few years back?

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Quick Mends: High Country News weighs in on LA River revitalization

In a gem of a piece, photographer Roberto (Bear) Guerra chronicles the species loss the LA River has suffered since being encased in concrete with photographs of specimens from the Western Foundation for Vertebrate Zoology and the LA County Natural History Museum.

An important photo essay as our city weighs the future of the river in terms of development and habitat restoration. A sample:

Western Toad (Courtesy High Country News)

Western Toad (Bufo boreas) —  Perhaps no animal is as emblematic of the decline of native species in the decades following channelization as the western toad. One of the neighborhoods adjacent to the soft-bottom Glendale Narrows section of the river is still known as “Frogtown,” for the swarms of young toads and Pacific treefrogs that hopped through the streets each year until the 1970s. Today, toads and frogs are rarely to be found.

See you on the river, Jim Burns