Clean Waters Bring Native Fish Back

It was a red-letter day, one fine day in the summer of 2011. Perhaps all concerned with the event didn’t celebrate, though it was clearly a milestone.

And what was that earthshaking development? A state game warden ticketed a pair of anglers on Silver Bow Creek for having in their possession a stringer of half a dozen 15-16 inch westslope cutthroat trout. The citation was based on the basic regulation for Western Montana that cutthroat trout over 10 inches must be released.

That incident was a highlight in a report by FWP fisheries biologist Jason Lindstrom to the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited last week. Lindstrom is the fisheries manager for the Upper Clark Fork River watershed.

Perhaps the incident wouldn’t have been a big deal on some western Montana trout streams, but on Silver Bow Creek it was too important to ignore.

For over a century, Silver Bow Creek, the small stream that starts in Butte, was an industrial sewer, flowing red from acids and heavy metals from smelting and mining operations in the Butte mining district. If you had to find an example of a terminally-abused waterway, Silver Bow Creek would have ranked right up there with the Cuyahoga River at Cleveland, Ohio, that famously caught on fire back in the 1960s.

In the 1990s, Super Fund cleanup began on Silver Bow Creek, with removal of contaminated soil and a reconstruction of the streambed and riparian areas. In 2002, FWP biologists began studying the creek at various stretches from Montana Street, downstream to the Warm Springs ponds.

In the first few years, the only fish found were suckers, sculpins and mud minnows, and these fish started spreading through the system. A trout was first found in 2006 in the German Gulch area, and trout have now been found in the system from Montana Street in Butte to where Montana Highway 1 crosses the river near the I-90 Anaconda exit.

As of 2011, Lindstrom said, westslope cutthroat trout, primarily migrating into the stream from German Gulch, seem to be thriving in the former industrial sewer, with many 12-18 inch trout found in electrofishing studies. Further, there seem to be migrations between German Gulch and Brown’s Gulch, demonstrating the restoration of an historic linkage of these tributaries through Silver Bow Creek.

Effective March 1, 2012, a special regulation goes into effect making Silver Bow Creek and its tributaries a catch and release only area.

While a westslope cutthroat trout fishery on Silver Bow Creek is something to celebrate, not all is rosy. Lindstrom reported on a Montana State University graduate student’s study of Silver Bow Creek from Butte to Fairmount Hot Springs.

This study documents that metals contamination from runoff on Butte’s hillsides is a recurring problem, one that keeps trying to reverse the efforts of years and millions of dollars of environmental cleanup. His study also confirms the effects of a known problem: the effluent from Butte’s sewage treatment plant is putting ammonia into Silver Bow Creek. The ammonia creates a hypoxic zone in the stretch just below the plant to near Brown’s Gulch.

Ammonia acts as a fertilizer in the stream, generating excess plant growth and algae blooms that use up dissolved oxygen in the water, creating a hypoxic zone, also known as a dead zone. Worldwide, chemical fertilizers are the most common human-related cause for dead zones, along with sewage runoff and related pollution.

I’m not a chemist and I don’t have the answer for what it’s going to take to clean up the sewage treatment effluent problem. Let’s hope Butte-Silver Bow comes up with answers and the chunk of money to deal with this problem. We are so close to having a precious new resource just outside our back doors: a thriving small stream fishery.

Let’s deal with the problems and let Silver Bow Creek reach its potential.

The George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited will hold its annual fundraising banquet on Saturday, March 31. The chapter will also hold its annual State of the Fisheries meeting on April 26.

Silver Bow Creek west of Butte MT

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