Lake users marshal forces to oppose management changes

Citizens and lake users in the North Big Horn Basin are not giving in to a desired change in Big Horn Lake management without a fight, as some 75 people packed the meeting room at the Lovell Fire Hall Monday night in a strong show of support.

The “call to arms” meeting was called by former Big Horn County commissioner Keith Grant and other members of the Friends of Bighorn Lake support and advocacy organization in response to a recent media blitz put on by the Bighorn River Alliance in support of the fishery below the Yellowtail Dam. Lake users worry that pressure by the Alliance on the Bureau of Reclamation will influence management of the lake level at the expense of lake levels.

Chris Finley makes a point during Monday night’s meeting at the fire hall as Joe Anderson (center) and Wes Mangus look on.
David Peck photo

Grant and others have responded to media reports in Montana stating the Alliance’s position that the trout fishery below the dam is “at risk” due to current management practices by the Bureau, which has used “rule curve” management methods to balance the interests of lake and river users.

The river and lake users, along with other stakeholders, have met regularly for many years as the Big Horn River System Issues Group to work together on management, but after years of cooperative management among the river users, lake users and federal and state agencies, Grant and others fear a return to the “informal agreement” that hurt lake recreation in the early 2000s.

The Friends of Bighorn Lake was formed some 12 years ago after Bureau lake management practices following a series of low mountain snowpack years left Horseshoe Bend high and dry. The lake at that time was being managed by an “informal agreement” with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to favor the river fishery, Grant said, so the Friends started their own lobbying efforts and brought to bear Wyoming’s Congressional delegation, as well as the office of then Gov. Dave Freudenthal. Grant, Rep. Elaine Harvey and others researched the enabling legislation that created Big Horn Lake and the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.

Ken Grant opened the meeting, noting, “I think it was 2006, 12 years ago, when we had to address this issue the last time. Things worked out pretty quick, and they moved in the right direction pretty rapidly.”

He then turned the time over to his father, Keith Grant, who led the crowd through a PowerPoint presentation.

“When Elaine and I started working on this, we had a dry lake. We had a dry lake for a long time, no lake in Wyoming,” Keith Grant said. “In 2005 we had a big water year, and the lake came up. We were really excited. We’re going to have water in there. We’d been told that the reason we couldn’t have a lake up here was because of the irrigation demands downstream. So knowing irrigation rights, we believed it. Until we found out that wasn’t so. We started working on this and found out the lake had priority.

“The Bighorn River Alliance has now decided that it should revert back to the old management. We don’t agree with that. We think the Bureau of Reclamation has been doing a good job in managing for both ends of the recreation area. Back in 2006 we told the Bureau we wanted a balanced management, and we wanted everybody involved. We wanted the fishery and Big Horn Lake. We didn’t want a bunch of government folks making the management plan.”

Grant said the two groups started working together, adding, “We thought it was working well, until we found out it wasn’t.”

“From the first we wanted to work with Montana,” Grant said. “We wanted a balanced program where we can have a lake and they can have a river. And it’s worked quite well. But not well enough to suit them.”

Grant called recent Montana media reports on lake management “fake news – news that is deliberately, intentionally and verifiably false.”

Unkept promises

Turning to the PowerPoint, Grant said the federal government made several promises when taking farm land to create Big Horn Lake and the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area more than 50 years ago, displacing farm families and taking out of production thousands of taxed acres.

“We were promised that the recreation economy would replace the agriculture economy,” he said. “That never happened. We lost 73 farm families, and 30,870 acres disappeared from Big Horn County’s tax rolls.”

He said the unkept promises included:

• Full development of the highway connecting the Little Bighorn Battlefield with Lovell – Never realized.

• Full visitor numbers, 2 million per year – Never realized.

• Promised economic impact from the recreation area – Never realized because full development never happened.

After 1966, Grant said, the Kane area had zero farm families, zero taxed acres, zero economic dollars from farming and zero taxes generated from farms.

“In 2005 the county assessor figured it up that we lost $212,264 in taxes to the county,” he said.

Management history

After receiving the lake and dam from the Army Corps of Engineers in 1966, Grant said, the Bureau of Reclamation developed a reservoir management plan and used that plan to manage the lake for 20 years until 1986, when the Bureau started managing the lake based on two letters of correspondence between the Bureau and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks called an “informal agreement.”

At that time, he said, the lake level was managed “for whatever the river required,” Grant said.

Extended drought years and poor management balance between 2000 and 2006 resulted in an empty lake, Grant continued, until the Friends of Bighorn Lake group was formed in 2006. Grant and Harvey traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with federal officials and obtained official documents regarding the lake and recreation area.

In 2007, Grant said, the Bureau started managing the lake according to the original operations plan, and the lake filled during the fourth driest year on record. And yet river releases were higher, on average, than five of the previous six years.

Keith Grant (right) makes a point as son Ken looks on during the Friends of Bighorn Lake meeting Monday night at the Lovell Fire Hall.
David Peck photo

In 2008 the Bighorn River Issues Group was formed, and “all interested parties” started meeting together and collaborating on management of the lake and river. Then from 2008-10 the rule curve management plan was developed and implemented, agreed to by all parties, Grant said.

From 2007 through 2017, the lake filled every year, he said.

Grant said that, from 2009 through 2017, river releases hit preferred flows – 2,500 to 8,000 cfs — 83 percent of the time, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and flows above 8,000 cfs just 17 percent of the time due to record inflows from high snowpack.

Meanwhile, the river fishery economic value exploded from $14.25 million in 2005, according to the Billings Gazette in 2006, to $51 million in October of 2017, and now the Alliance quoted a figure in a recent article of $102.2 million, Grant said. And yet the Alliance also stated in a recent article that the Bureau of Reclamation is “damaging the Big Horn River” and the fishery is “at risk.”

So despite the economic value of the fishery reportedly growing from $14.25 million over the years to $102.2 million, “they’re complaining,” Grant said, adding, “I wish we could see growth like that. We think this is misinformation…That’s an increase in economic value of 700 percent. I think we’d all like to see that.”

What can be done?

Recently, only about four or five local people have been attending the River Issues Group meetings, Grant said, adding, “If we want to keep our lake in Wyoming, we’re going to have to put out a little more effort.”

Asking “what can we do?” Grant said, “We can do nothing, and it will go back to the way it was. We’ll have a dry lake out here.”

Or, he said, people must get involved, get educated, write letters, attend meetings, help with a social media blitz and spread the word.

Grant said all of the supporting documents and information will be put on the Friends of Bighorn Lake web page, and he urged people to contact their elected officials such as Wyoming’s congressional delegation and Gov. Matt Mead.

“We can show up and have a group like this (at meetings), and the Bureau will take notice of it,” he added. “We need to spread the word. We need to let everybody know that our national park is at risk, not their river fishery.”

Chapter four of the reservoir operations plan states that the reservoir takes priority, Grant said, “but it’s going to take all of our voices to make that heard. The Bighorn River Alliance has a lot of members.” The Alliance has invited in many officials to talk about the fishery, Grant said, from the governor to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who is from Montana.

“We need to contact our congressmen and get them on board,” Grant said, adding that former Rep. Barbara Cubin attended one of the early Friends meetings in Lovell and “told the Bureau what she thought,” using “pretty strong language.” Noted Grant, “Maybe we need to get somebody like that to show up and use that strong on ‘em again.”

Ken Grant then took the floor and said, “There’s power in numbers.” He said the Friends of Bighorn Lake membership list is 10 to 12 years old. Some people have maintained their membership, while others may have let it lapse or are only just now becoming interested.

Ken Grant said the Friends are offering a two-year free membership and asked people to simply send an email to the Friends at and provide their name, number of people in the household, email address and cell phone number.

“That way we’ll be able to keep you informed of any progress that’s going on or anything you’ll be able to do,” he said. “We’ll be able to email you links to elected officials, so it will be easy to write a letter and copy and paste it to all of the elected officials. We’ll make it really easy for you.

“But there needs to be numbers. We need to show that we’re interested and we’re not going to let our lake dry up.”

Ken Grant said lake users must be vigilant and proactive.

“The Bighorn River Alliance is hitting us from two directions,” he said. “They know that, legally, they don’t have a leg to stand on. Their river does not take legal precedence over the lake. The lake was an act of Congress, this reservoir. The river was a byproduct.

“Our reservoir has purebred species of sauger that are protected. The river has an introduced trout fishery. It’s not needed. There’s a lot of legal aspects that will not allow the river to take priority over the National Park system. But sometimes the law doesn’t matter. If they can get enough people worked up and make their fishery look so valuable that it doesn’t make sense to manage the lake – that it only makes sense to use the water to take care of the river – they might persuade Congress people to allow change of management.

“So what they’re doing is exaggerating numbers…The river fishery people say that the fishery is in jeopardy because of the way it’s been managed for the last 10 years. At the same time they show a 700 percent increase in economic value of the fishery. Does that make sense? I wish I could manage Midway terrible for 10 years and have a 700 percent increase. Who wouldn’t wish for something like that?”

Rule curve management

In answer to a question, Ken Grant said the rule curve is a complicated and in-depth system that uses formulas, calculations, projections and sensors in the mountains for snowpack and snow water equivalent information, plus 30-year averages for spring rains. All that is used to project what will be coming into the lake in the form of runoff. The winter releases are set in the fall, he added, and as they watch the snowpack daily, they can adjust the gates for how much water to let out “based on how much snow is coming.”

“If they predict very, very close, everyone’s happy,” he said. “If there’s some huge rain event that was unpredicted, then they’re scrambling and they do the best they can. For 10 years they’ve done fantastic.”

When there are record-breaking inflows, nobody’s happy, he said, including lake users, who saw the lake drained way down last spring in anticipation of the huge runoff to come, thus delaying the start of boating at Horseshoe Bend for several weeks. The lake tour boat took a hit, he noted. But lake users understood the record inflow, he added, acknowledging that river users suffer during high water from fishing success to bank erosion.

“They want to drain our reservoir down even farther in the spring in case there’s big runoff so they don’t have to let so much out,” Ken said. “You can only let the reservoir get so full before you’ve got to dump it…All they (the Bureau) can do is work on average and the sensors in the mountains.”

He added that the rule curve worked so well for other reservoirs in Montana that Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks actually recommended it for Big Horn Lake, saying, “It’s a lot better than what you were doing.”

Keith Grant noted that the flows are changed very gradually when necessary during the winter so as not to raise or lower the river too much to affect the fishery and because of ice down the river.

“They have to be very careful in managing those gates in the winter,” he said, adding that communication is the key.

“When they first started, Montana and Wyoming talked once or twice a year,” he said. “Now they talk daily and weekly. Every week, when everyone gets kind of nervous, we have a conference call, which everybody can join that wants to. The Bureau of Reclamation can explain where they’re at and how they’re going to manage it. It’s not like everybody wasn’t on board with what’s been going on.

“The rule curve works very well. It works as well as Mother Nature will allow it. When we have big rain events, you can’t predict those.”

Other points made Monday:

• Ken Grant and others disputed claims by the Alliance that the management system has harmed power generation at the dam, saying that the “spillage” that bypasses the turbines is affected by record high water years but is not a product of mismanagement. Added Grant, “The bottom line is, they want to control Wyoming’s water, and they want to decide where those dam gates are. They don’t really care about the reservoir.” Added Jerry LaFleiche of Powell, “The turbines are already handling all they can handle. They’re generating electricity. So there’s never been a loss of electrical generation from spillage.” Keith Grant said there’s more power generation with a full lake than a low lake, according to the Western Area Power Administration.

• Harvey said a possible downstream trout fishery is mentioned in only one paragraph in the original planning documents, noting that the fishery below the dam is not a natural fishery and was created by the reservoir project. “It is a beautiful place, and it is good fishing, but it doesn’t take precedence under the law, it doesn’t take precedence under the planning documents and it doesn’t take precedence over national parks,” she said, adding, “Denigrating a national park is a federal offense. Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area is a national park. It has been designated as such. And so, to not take care of that park is against the law.”

• At one of the early meetings of the River Issues Group, Harvey said, all of the users of the water from Ducks Unlimited to the Game and Fish weighed in on the issue and discussed preferred lake levels season by season, and that data helped create the rule curve.

• Stating that “a lot of really good people” were involved in the battle for the lake level 12 years ago and have been since then, Harvey called for younger people to become involved, noting, “How old are we going to get before we just can’t do it anymore? How many people want to be involved, and what is it you want in the end? If this is important to you, we need you to get involved. Keith and I have gone on to other jobs, but we’re not giving up yet, because we believe this is worth fighting for. We believe the economy of Lovell can grow and we believe that, if we can get full development, and part of that includes the road. That road is part of the key to full development.

“Pick a weekend and sit on Main Street and watch traffic coming from Montana and going to the lake. Count the license plates…I’ll tell you this, we have been economically better off since we started working on keeping the lake full. Just count the storefronts. Count how many businesses have grown, and it is a direct result of having water in the lake so that we have recreation so people have a reason to stay in business.”

• Steve Keil said people have become lackadaisical over the last 10 years and predicted the same fight that took place 12 years ago, adding, “We just want fairness on this end. We don’t mind them having water when they need it, but if we don’t stand up we’re going to be right back in the battle having camel races at Horseshoe Bend.

• Former Bighorn Canyon Cultural Resources Manager Chris Finley urged the Friends to gather as many facts and information as they can and educate the river fishermen and others, as well as invite the Billings Gazette to a future meeting and present all of the information to give to the readers in Montana. “You’ve got to have some answers to give to these people to counterbalance what they put in the paper,” Finley said.

• Keith Grant said it is important to let all parties know that Bighorn Canyon is a national park and that it must be supported as such, including continuing to full development.

• LaFleiche said it’s important to show support to Steve Davies of the Bureau of Reclamation and encourage him to “stand his ground” regarding lake management. The Friends leaders said they would put his address on the website.

• Rep. Jamie Flitner urged the group to create some key talking points that people can use in writing letters to elected officials and the Bureau, noting, “We need to really drive home the point that this is a national park. This is not just the park of Lovell or the park of Big Horn County. This is a national park. This is the nation’s park.”

• Big Horn County Emergency Management Coordinator LaRae Dobbs said now is a good time to be communicating with the Bureau, because the federal agency is in the process of re-writing policies for managing reservoirs in light of global climate change.

A the end, Kurt Dobbs, a friend of Gov. Matt Mead, said he texted the governor during the meeting to explain the situation and that Gov. Mead responded by offering his services and those of Attorney General Peter Michael. Dobbs said Mead “said to let you know that he will be getting involved and that Montana will not be taking our water.”

The room erupted in applause.

By David Peck