Prairie waterways had been labeled 'fishless'
HELENA - Some 18,000 miles of prairie streams in Montana are terra
No one knows what, if anything, lives in them, said Ken McDonald, head of
the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department's special fisheries division. No one
has ever bothered to look.
The streams, numbering close to 4,200, had been officially known as
"fishless" for years for lack of information.
But this summer, McDonald and the agency launched a journey of discovery.
Using a $125,000 federal grant, the department hired four teams of three
people to survey fish and aquatic life at 305 random stretches of 240 of the
streams. The creeks stretched from the Rocky Mountain Front to North Dakota,
with most of them in eastern Montana.
What they found shocked them.
Not only did the "fishless" streams have plenty of fish, many boasted a
biological diversity unheard of in Montana's famous cold water trout
"In western Montana, if you have 10 species of fish in a stream, that's
really diverse," McDonald said. Many prairie streams had more than 30
Most of the fish the investigators found were small, topping out at two or
three inches long when fully grown. They found fish like the Fathead Minnow,
the Longnose Dace and Sand Shiner. They even found rainbow trout.
And they found them in droves.
"They'd see a stretch that didn't look like much and they find 1,000 fish, "
Prairie streams are not like their cold water cousins. They are warmer,
siltier, saltier and known to completely dry up on occasion, McDonald said.
He describes them as "boom and bust" rivers - running high and cold in the
spring time, dwindling to puddles in early fall. Also, nobody fishes in the
streams, which is why state scientists and most members of the general
public had passed them over, McDonald said.
The study turned up other finds, suggesting that even intermittent creeks
play an important role in the grander prairie ecosystem. Larger fish in the
area's major rivers - the Missouri and the Yellowstone - swim up the swollen
tributaries in the spring to spawn, McDonald said. Then, as the streams
start drying up, the young fish return to the larger river where they grow
into larger fish.
None of this comes as much surprise to Roger Muggli, a Miles City-area
farmer, feed plant operator and manager of the Tongue and Yellowstone
Irrigation District. Muggli, who is also a member of the Northern Plains
Resource Council, has been trying for 15 years to find a way to help fish
bypass the 117-year old irrigation diversion dam in Tongue River that he
manages called the 12 Mile Dam.
Back in 1988, when Muggli first started his quest, he was seen as something
of an ecological loner.
"Anyone giving a giving a crap about warm water fisheries in eastern Montana
was kind a new thing then," he said.
Muggli said he has seen fish literally try to jump the dam - always
unsuccessfully. He wanted a way to connect the two halves of the Tongue
River, split by the very dam his farm depends on.
Today, thanks to federal grants, the 12 Mile Dam has a diversion for fish
moving downstream and is soon to have a new diversion to let spawning fish
swim back up.
Muggli said he hopes the new study will shine attention on Montana's
forgotten prairie streams.
"The rivers in eastern Montana were places that if you had something you
didn't want, you threw it," he said.
McDonald said the complete findings of the stream surveyors won't be
published until later this year. He is also working to get money to repeat
and expand the survey next summer.
"A lot of people ask, 'These little fish, what good are they?' " he said.
"Well, they feed the big fish."
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