U.S. Water News Online
DILLON, Colorado -- A program that paid some southwestern
Montana ranchers to forego summer irrigation water, for the benefit
of struggling fish, was a waste of taxpayers' money, critics say.
But others say the program by the federal Natural Resources
Conservation Service may have tipped the scales to help keep the
Arctic grayling from a court-ordered emergency listing as an
The program paid ranchers in the Big Hole River valley $774,163
this summer to turn off irrigation head gates early, or to build
livestock watering systems not dependent on Big Hole water.
The program arose after drought left the river nearly dry in the
Wisdom Bridge area, considered a stronghold for the last remaining
population of fluvial Arctic grayling in the 48 contiguous states.
An environmental group sued the federal government earlier this
year, attempting to force protection of grayling under the Endangered
Species Act. Officials with the Natural Resources Conservation
Service stepped forward, saying they had $1 million for a program
that would pay ranchers to shut off irrigation water early or
establish watering tanks for livestock.
From the outset, officials called the program a stopgap and agreed
that longer-term solutions were needed to protect grayling in drought
Fifteen ranchers chose to participate in the program. Others in
the Big Hole area agreed to turn back irrigation water, but said they
did not expect payment.
Then, in June, it started raining. Soon there were requests for
the Natural Resources Conservation Service to disclose who was
getting money, and how much.
Kris Berg, Dillon conservationist for the service, said that
before contracts were complete, the agency could not disclose
participants' names and how much cash they received. She also said
that under new federal restrictions, information such as how much
land a rancher claimed went without irrigation, for purposes of the
program, was confidential.
That irritates rancher Jack Hirschy, who questions whether all who
signed up for payments deserved what they got. Without seeing acreage
information, he said, there is no way to determine whether the public
"You just can't say that they'd done the right thing or not
without that kind of information," said Hirschy, who advocated
voluntary water conservation and did not join the payment program. "I
do think that most of them didn't care a darn thing about the fish
until this program showed up."
Whether from the program, the summer rainfall or a combination of
the two, the Big Hole River at the Wisdom Bridge never dropped below
the critical level for grayling.
Randy Gazda of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state fish
biologist Jim Magee said that may have helped head off a court
decision to list the grayling as a protected species.
After members of the Big Hole Watershed Committee said they wanted
to support the conservation service's program, directors of the
Beaverhead Conservation District agreed to cooperate, said Art
Christensen, district chairman.
"We have a lot of respect for (the watershed committee),"
Christensen said. "We've worked with them for years."
The board signed off on all contracts but one, and it was the
largest, at $188,020. Because it topped $100,000, that contract had
to be signed at a regional office.
Christensen said that although he is not sold on the water
program, people must be careful in their criticism.
"We shouldn't demonize all of these people," he said. "Most of
these families have been giving back water without compensation for
many, many years."
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