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New Jefferson River rules address declines in trout
By Perry Backus of The Montana Standard, 03/17/2005

WHITEHALL - Every spring, Jefferson River rainbow trout crowd around the mouths of a pair of tributaries waiting for their chance to spawn.

Of course, that congregation of big trout attracts anglers.

Now, faced with declining trout populations due to chronic drought conditions, fishermen are going to have look elsewhere for a place to cast their lines in spring and fall.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission recently adopted an emergency regulation closing fishing at the mouths of Hell's Canyon Creek and Willow Springs, between Whitehall and Twin Bridges, to protect the spawning trout. The closures are in effect from April 1 to April 30 and Oct. 15 to Nov. 30. The regulation closes all fishing within 100 yards up and down stream from the mouths of the two creeks.

Since the tributaries are the mainstays for recruiting new rainbows into the river, the closure makes sense, said Ron Spoon, the state fisheries biologist for the Jefferson River. The hope is that once the water returns after this latest drought cycle finally abates, trout numbers will rebound fairly rapidly.

People interested in the Jefferson River fishery started talking about what could be done last winter. The ideas ranged from reduction in bag limits to season closures. But the idea rose to the top was simple: Protect the most vulnerable fish.

"It was a slam-dunk," Spoon said. "It was easy to implement and it did the most to protect the spawning stock as best we could. If we do that then as soon as we get back into water, our recovery can be relatively quick." Rainbow trout have a tenuous existence in the Jefferson River. They spawn in the spring making it difficult, if not impossible, to create an effective redd (nest) in the mainstream of the river during what can be a tumultuous runoff. Rainbows need smaller tributaries, of which there are few.

Even with that limiting factor, rainbow numbers increased from 1983 to 2000 due to in part to relatively good flows, better habitat and a catch-and-release regulation. Since then, with the worsening drought, their numbers have been declining.

They're not alone. All fish species, including whitefish and suckers, in the Jefferson River are down since the drought.

Even with the closure, anglers can fish up and downstream from the closed areas. But the restriction will continue.

"But I don't see this closure going away," Spoon said. "It's just too important to protect those spawning trout."

Used with permission of the Montana Standard

'Forgotten fork' Anglers give Jefferson another look
By Perry Backus, of The Montana Standard, 10/03/2001

WHITEHALL -- Within an easy hour's drive from its banks, the Jefferson shares the spotlight with some of the most popular fishing rivers in the West. The Big Hole, Beaverhead and Ruby rivers attract fly fishermen from all over the world. In some cases, there's a perception that too many anglers are using these rivers. The state has put limits on out-ofstate fishermen for both the Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers.

But that's certainly not the case for the Jefferson.

On almost any day, fishermen can find plenty of cast ing room on the river. Unlike its famous tributaries -- the Big Hole, Beaverhead and Ruby come together near Twin Bridges to create the river -- the Jefferson's trout population hasn't been up to par for more than a decade.

Bruce Rehwinkel thinks he, with help from local landowners and sportsmen's groups, can change that.

Last spring, Rehwinkel became the coordinator for an ambitious program funded by Trout Unlimited, Orvis and the National Fish and Wildlife Federation. Over the next few years, Rehwinkel will search for ways to both help local landowners make better use of their water, and enhance tributaries to improve, even create, spawn ing habitat.

"The Jefferson is just one of those places where fish ing ought to be better,'' said Bruce Farling, executive director of the Montana Chapter of Trout Unlimited. "There's been a lot of attention on the rivers where crowding has become a problem ... we've always thought that rather than regulating, one solution might be to increase the supply of good fishing rivers.''

"There is just so much biological potential for the Jefferson,'' said Farling. "It's ultimately just an exten sion of the Big Hole, Beaverhead and Ruby rivers. We just need to find ways to get some water and some more fish.''

With his river experience and good working relation ships with landowners, Farling said Rehwinkel seemed the perfect match for trying to make something happen.

"He's the right guy at the right time in the right place,'' said Farling.

For 12 years, Rehwinkel worked as the state fisheries biologist charged with managing the Jefferson River. Over that tenure, Rehwinkel almost always enjoyed plentiful water and corresponding good trout popula tions. That is until 1988 -- the year drought helped fuel the tremendous Yellowstone fires -- when the Jefferson shrunk to a trickle under the Waterloo Bridge.

Trout fishing in the river has never been the same.

"Their good water years since then have been like our bad ones,'' Rehwinkel said.

While Rehwinkel can do nothing about the amount of water offered by Mother Nature, he has ideas on how to both stretch available water and make better use of large and small tributaries.

To do that, Rehwinkel is looking at projects running the gamut of helping irrigators plug leaky ditches to searching out small tributaries, even small drainage ditches, that have the potential to become new spawning waters for trout.

He knows first-hand how a rehabilitated small stream can make a dif ference. Back in the mid-1980s, Rehwinkel began working with a landowner to reconstruct a spring creek called Willow Springs. With a shovel and knowledge he'd gained from picking people's brains, Rehwinkel went to work recreating spawning channels for trout.

Those efforts paid off. Biologists now count somewhere around 140 redds (places where trout spawn) in Willow Springs Creek. The percent age of rainbow trout in the Jefferson River in the vicinity of Willow Springs has gone from about one percent to somewhere close to 40 per cent of the trout population.

Willow Springs and another effort at Hells Canyon are efforts Rehwinkel hopes to duplicate.

All along the river, Rehwinkel has searched for any small stream and in some cases, even ditches, that might have potential for becoming new spawning channels. A successful spawning channel requires about 10 cubic feet per second of water flow during fall months and enough grade to keep spawning gravel clear of sediment.

"Trout have the power of thousands of years of genetics. Their biolo gy is so resilient that if we can just give them half a chance, they'll do the rest,'' he said.

Ron Spoon, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks biol ogist for the Jefferson River, said Rehwinkel's efforts will help the pro jects get rolling.

Spoon is charged with managing the Jefferson River. Like other state fisheries biologists, he is stretched thin.

The projects being considered by Rehwinkel are time-consuming efforts that probably wouldn't get done without extra help, said Spoon.

"It's like we now have a second biologist in the drainage'' with Rehwinkel on the job, said Spoon. "He's focused on projects and his con centrated efforts will go a long ways in seeing them actually be com pleted.''

"They used to call him the scrounger,'' said Spoon. "He has a way of gathering lots of loose parts and making something from it. It's great to have him working there.'' Spoon said the Jefferson River Watershed Committee will play a vital role in helping Rehwinkel prioritize projects.

"Instead of just fishery people making those decisions, the committee will ensure there is a much larger discussion,'' said Spoon.

Rehwinkel said he's glad to have so many local people already work ing together to find solutions for the Jefferson River. Their efforts have helped to maintain the river's fishery through the past couple of drought years, he said.

For instance, irrigators went into this year with less water than 1988, the year the river essentially went dry at Waterloo. This year, the river dropped below 50 cubic feed per second at the Waterloo Bridge only seven or eight days.

Rehwinkel said that cooperation is different than in years' past.

"It's one of the reasons why there is a real opportunity to make some real improvements on the river,'' he said.

Over the past couple of years, irrigators called for water from the Ruby Reservoir and then didn't divert it into the canals. They worked together to synchronize irrigation and therefore save water that was left in the river. And they are looking for ways to improve the situation on the Jefferson.

"They deserve a lot of thanks,'' said Rehwinkel. "Without their coop eration and efforts, we would have seen the river at 3 cfs at Waterloo this summer. That didn't happen because of them.''

Used with permission of the Montana Standard.

Big Hole, Jefferson win conservation grants
By Perry Backus, of The Montana Standard, 03/02/2003

For years, members of the Big Hole Watershed Committee and the Jefferson River Watershed Council searched under every stone to find ways to pay for myriad water conservation projects.

Those efforts have been noticed all the way to Washington, D.C. This week, Montana Sens. Conrad Burns and Max Baucus announced that the rivers will each receive a fed eral appropriation of $400,000 that can be used help move along needed projects.

On the Jefferson River, the money will help find ways to make irrigation more effi cient and therefore eventually keep more water in the river.

"We are exceedingly pleased Congress under stands that funding of coop erative water conservation projects is key to dealing with drought while accommo dating fish and agriculture,'' said Bruce Rehwinkel, coor dinator of Trout Unlimited's Jefferson River Project.

"There's plenty of need here,'' Rehwinkel said. "We don't intend to waste a dime of that money '85 there are a number of projects around that show a lot of promise.''

The Jefferson funding will be directed through the National Resource Conservation Service. It will be applied to professional engineering evaluations on irrigation systems and possi bly pilot projects on leaky irrigation canals and ditches.

"Our purpose is to increase river flows, deliver irrigation water more effi ciently, and conserve valu able fish and wildlife habi tat,'' said Dave White, the ser vice's state conservationist.

The Jefferson River Watershed Council has been working on many of those same issues since it was formed in 1999. The council is a collaboration of local water users, anglers, Trout Unlimited members and local business owners who decided to work together to try and make a difference on the Jefferson River. It fashioned itself after the Big Hole Watershed Committee, which started meeting in 1995.

In the last four years, the council has developed a voluntary drought management plan that helps river flows.

On the Big Hole River, the appropriation is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Partners for Wildlife program. The money will be used on efforts that conserve water needed by both irriga tion and the river's famed fishery, especially its dwin dling population of native river-dwelling arctic grayling.

Arctic grayling numbers in the Big Hole have been dramatically impacted by the last few years of drought. One group has promised a lawsuit in attempt to force the federal government to place the grayling on the fed eral endangered species list.

Steve Luebeck, a member of both the Big Hole Water-shed Committee and the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said the focus for upcoming projects will be on the grayling's stronghold near Wisdom.

Projects might include water storage projects or possibly water leasing.

Used with permission of the Montana Standard.

Federal natural resources chief takes close look at Jefferson River
By The Montana Standard Staff 05/08/2004

WHITEHALL - Standing on the banks of Parson's Slough, just above a small wooden box that holds thousands of freshly captured trout eggs, the chief of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bruce Knight, is impressed.

That box is one of many scattered along the slough that may hold the future for the Jefferson River's fishery. State biologists hope that the young fish hatched from the eggs will eventually return to other streams to spawn.

It's one of several ongoing projects put together by a dedicated group of people who care about the Jefferson. This week, they gave Knight a first-hand look. Parson's Slough was the last leg of a rapid-fire tour of projects the Jefferson River Watershed Council has assembled since it was formed in 1999.

Knight, along with an entourage of public officials, members of Trout Unlimited, and local ranchers, had just come from looking at the Jefferson River, a soil moisture measuring device, problems with an irrigation ditch and a spring creek channel that had been reconstructed to improve fish habitat.

Along the way, Knight heard about the cooperative efforts of the watershed council.

The council is a collaboration of local water users and business owners, anglers and Trout Unlimited members who decided to work together to try and make a difference on the Jefferson River. It fashioned itself after the successful Big Hole Watershed Committee, which started meeting in 1995.

Knight said he is impressed with their efforts.

"The exciting thing is that I'm starting to see bits and pieces of these kinds of volunteer efforts all over the country," said Knight.

The reasons people are coming together may be different - "in some places of the country it might be trout, other places salmon or bobwhites and in others it's just concerns over water quality," but the result is the same, Knight said. People with different interests are working together to find common solutions, he said.

Groups like these are making the difference that President Bush referred to on Earth Day when he said there have been no net losses of wetlands throughout the country, said Knight.

"It's testimony of what can be accomplished when people work in collaboration," he said.

Bruce Rehwinkel, coordinator of Trout Unlimited's Jefferson River Project, said the Jefferson River Watershed Council has made a difference. Through its first few years, various interests have found common ground and that's benefited the river, especially during the recent drought years, he said.

"The level of cooperation that we've seen from everyone is certainly appreciated," said Rehwinkel. "That's happened because everyone has been willing to listen to each other."

The projects have benefited both local producers and anglers and over the long run, they will benefit the Jefferson River, he said.

People have responded. For instance, Rehwinkel said that ranchers and farmers have called for their stored water in the Ruby Reservoir at critical times and then allowed it to stay in the river to help preserve the fishery.

Other landowners have allowed the state and Trout Unlimited to work on spring creeks and sloughs important for spawning trout. Trout Unlimited is working with local landowners in an experiment to imprint trout in hopes they'll return there in the future and produce new spawning grounds.

That effort will take years before the trout are ready to spawn, and Rehwinkel and others hope that by then the current drought will be just a memory.

"By the time we get past this drought, we're hoping that fish will be waiting by the door," Rehwinkel said.

"There have just been a lot of people willing to help," he said. "And that's what it really takes for something like this to be successful."

Used with permission of the Montana Standard.

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