The state of Montana is home to over a hundred mountain ranges and sub-ranges, most of which are stacked adjacent to each other in the western part of the state. The central portion of the Treasure State is a little different, with about a dozen semi-isolated ranges reaching up to the Big Sky from the surrounding prairie and pastures. Bordered on the north by the Big and Little Belt Ranges, and on the south by the ever-enchanting Crazy Mountains are the Castle Mountains – home to Elk Peak and the headwaters of the Smith River.
The 59-mile long Smith River flows down through White Sulphur Springs and heads northwest until eventually reaching the Missouri River, southwest of Great Falls. But the Smith ain’t just any ol’ river, it’s a blue-ribbon trout stream and it’s reputation has reached legendary status. A reputation that has increased its popularity to the point where a permit is now required for float trips to help manage the river traffic. In the late 1950s, to combat the ever decreasing water quality in the state due to increasing infrastructure development, Montana Department of Fish & Game biologists devised a list of “blue-ribbon” trout streams that embodied the “ideal productivity, public access, and aesthetics” they strived to preserve as Montana’s fishing reputation and legacy. On that list are some of the highest quality and best-known trout streams on earth, arguably collectively referable to as the Mount Rushmore of trout streams. The Smith River’s blue-ribbon fishery alone has been estimated to contribute over $10 million dollars annually to the economy of Montana.
The Smith River ‘s unique geologic setting is responsible for its pastel-colored 1,000-ft limestone cliffs, the subject of about a million Facebook and Instagram fly fishing, float trip glory shots. Further upstream near the river’s headwaters, this unique geologic neighborhood is home to the Johnny Lee deposits, an area that was part of the seafloor and an underwater hot springs system 1.4 billion years ago. This hot springs system was responsible for producing what is now the second highest grade copper deposit currently under permit in the world. Guess what that means? It means that a mining company has recently submitted an application to the State to construct a copper mine on Sheep Creek, a tributary of the Smith.
Mining and trout streams do not go well together. They are like Tom & Jerry, coyote & roadrunner, oil & water, tequila & late night text messages. Everyone remembers the now infamous Gold King mine spill in Colorado (the subject of our first blog) that made international headlines by staining the Animas the color of mustard. Earthworksaction.org summarized a peer-reviewed study on the environmental impacts of copper sulfide mining in the United States and the results are dumbfounding. Of the 14 mines reviewed, responsible for 89% of the Nation’s copper production in 2010, 100% experienced pipeline spills or other accidental incidents, 92% incurred significant water quality impacts from failed management practices, and 64% had tailings spills. That equates to contaminated groundwater, contaminated surface water, fish kills, and acute & chronic wildlife habitat impacts. These mines can also cause a groundwater cone of depression which results in less water in the river, higher water temps, and stressed fish & wildlife – especially in the summer. Is that a chance that Montanans are willing to take on one of the most prized fisheries in the state? Do you know what happens when a river becomes polluted with metals? It takes years, sometimes hundreds of years, to recover. Just look next door – Belt Creek, in the Little Belt Mountains, was ruined for decades from mining. Old mines still plague a number of major rivers in Montana and the mountain-west.
This is a volatile and divisive time in the politics, socio-economics, human rights, and environmental regulation and we as citizens need to start defining what will be our legacies and take responsibility for our actions, or lack thereof. Democracy was designed to reflect the will of the people. Don’t let the will of a few out-of-state investors decide the fate of your backyard, of your favorite fishing spot, of your kid’s favorite fishing spot.
So what can we do?
- Write and call the Montana Governor Steve Bullock and tell him you how you feel.
Visit www.smithriverwatch.org for guidance.
- Visit www.saveoursmith.com and sign the petition.
- Tell your friends to do the same.
- Research local and regional conservation initiatives and show them support.
Keep the Smith sexy.
Photo from the Missoulian
In August of 2015, 3 million gallons of wastewater from the Gold King mine spilled into the nearby Animas River, just north of the City of Durango in southwestern Colorado. Water samples taken shortly after the spill showed exceedingly high levels of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, lead and mercury. However, the Animas, and countless other western U.S. rivers, are no strangers to heavy metals. There are another half-million mines scattered throughout the country, some relics of a century ago and some still in use, and heavy metal contamination has been well documented. According to the USGS, heavy metals in surface water near mining sites have been shown to significantly lower the total abundance of macroinvertebrates and resulted in fewer taxa and lower dominance of Ephemeroptera (mayflies), Plecoptera (stoneflies), and Trichoptera (caddisflies). Needless to say, this is bad news for trout, and the billions of dollars that the sport of trout fishing brings to local economies. Healthy water = healthy fish.
Trout are an important water quality indicator species throughout the world, as they are indigenous to cold, well-oxygenated, relatively pollution-free water. Any change in these parameters, and you will see it in the fish. Trout are also the apex predators in many of their habitats which means that pollutants, especially the persistent heavy metals, bioaccumulate in their tissues. Studying the trout in the Animas will be instrumental in determining the acute and chronic effects of the Gold King spill which will be valuable for the management of similar mines and nearby rivers throughout the country. The silver lining in it all is this: what’s done is done - now let’s figure out what went wrong, how it affected the environment, and how we can prevent it in the future.
On February 22, 2016, Silverton and San Juan County voted to ask the State of Colorado to pursue U.S. EPA – Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) aka Superfund assistance in cleaning up the Gold King mine and a few dozen others in the area. For years, these jurisdictions have avoided Superfund for fear that the negative stigma would adversely affect tourism in the region. Now that the proverbial cat is out of the bag, Silverton and San Juan County feel like they have no other choice. Under CERCLA, the EPA can seek contribution from the potentially responsible parties to help foot the bill for the cleanup efforts. However, unfortunately for the region, many of the companies that owned the mines and ultimately caused the pollution have been out of business for decades.
The impacts to the fishing industry in Durango and downstream are yet to be quantified. The resident trout reproduction rates have been significantly hindered by heavy metals and sedimentation for years, well before the high-profile spill last year, and significant stocking efforts have kept the fishing industry afloat. Thankfully, and much to everyone’s surprise, there wasn’t a massive fish kill shortly following the spill. Subsequent sampling will indicate how much of the metals still reside in the sediment and biomass of the river, and how much was flushed downstream to the San Juan and Colorado.
Always wise to think twice before gobbling down a few fish tacos from that morning’s catch at an unfamiliar fishing spot.
Give the locals a call or check out their website for up to date fishing reports:
Duranglers Flies & Supplies www.duranglers.com
Animas Valley Anglers www.gottrout.com