A malfunction at the Hebgen Dam on Montana’s Madison River crashed water levels this week and stranded thousands of fish. But thanks to a statewide volunteer effort, disaster may have been averted, though long-term effects on the fishery are still unclear.
The Madison flows out of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and is a renowned “blue-ribbon” trout fishery known for holding thousands of fish per mile, with a summer bug hatch that draws fly fishermen from around the world.
The river was flowing at around 650 cubic feet per second before a solid metal shaft that controls a gate on Hebgen Lake malfunctioned between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 30, according to dam owners NorthWestern Energy. The flow into the river dropped dramatically to less than 200 cubic feet per second, drying up miles of river and trapping fish in shallow pools and back channels.
Brown trout are at the tail end of their spawn on the Madison at this time of year. They lay eggs in fast-moving, gravel-bottomed areas called “redds,” and officials feared these spots were dry or shallow enough to expose the redds to potentially deadly cold.
“Right now, our immediate concern is spawning redds being exposed to cold air temps due to the drop in the flow,” said Morgan Jacobsen, an information officer with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) for southwest Montana.
Crews from NorthWestern Energy and Anaconda Foundry Fabrication Co. were on the scene working on the gate with hopes the river’s flow could be restored Thursday or Friday. On Wednesday, divers attached hooks to the dropped gate to hoist it up and allow for a partial discharge while repairs are underway.
On Tuesday night, FWP responded to the emergency with a complete fishing closure on the Upper Madison between Ennis Lake and the Hebgen Dam and reported the stretch of river between the dam and Earthquake Lake appeared to be hardest hit by the incident.
The situation could have been much worse if not for the small army of volunteers that showed up in waders with nets and buckets to rescue stranded fish.
“At this time, there is no clear solution. We’re going to have to take it day by day, and it will take years of monitoring future fish recruitment in the stream to understand the effects of this situation,” Jacobsen said. “We’re very pleased with the volunteer effort. It shows the passion and love that people have for the resource here. It’s an unfortunate situation, but we’re doing all we can.”
Various local businesses and conservation groups sent appeals for help over email and text late Tuesday, and the fishing public responded en masse. The first wave of volunteers pulled many of the floundering big fish and moved them to the main channel before FWP officials paused the rescue effort for safety concerns, said Jason Fleury, president of the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana.
After being given the “all-clear” from the state, hundreds of volunteers moved in to help.
“This brought guides, outfitters, and recreational fishermen together to try to preserve the resource,” Fleury said. “Guides and outfitters often get a bad rap as people who don’t care about the rivers and fish, rather only profit. But we had guides and outfitters come in from all over the state to help the effort.”
It was a touching scene: old hands and parents with little kids all combing the shallow waters together. NorthWestern provided food for the volunteers. Thankfully, the circumstances on the Madison were not quite as dire as early reports indicated, and a NorthWestern company spokesperson said there are no structural issues with the dam itself.
“Everyone was expecting to wake up and see much, much worse,” said Jake Wells, a volunteer who showed up to help. “The water was very, very low between Earthquake Lake and the dam, but the river below Quake Lake to Ennis was much better than what we expected to see.”
About two miles of water runs between Earthquake Lake and the dam.
“Thank you to all the volunteers helping Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks today at the Madison River,” said a Facebook post from NorthWestern.
Clayton Elliott, conservation and government affairs director for Montana Trout Unlimited, said priority No. 1 is getting the water back in the river.
“We’re going to see both short-term and long-term impacts; redds are going to be a major factor in the river,” Elliott said. “The river is about 60% to 80% under where it should be. As for the volunteers, every river would be lucky to be so loved as the Madison, for so many people to show up to try to help.”
Montana FWP also commended the volunteers in a Facebook post late Wednesday night:
“Today, six crews comprised of FWP staff and many volunteers walked portions of the upper Madison River from Eagle’s Nest upstream to Hebgen Dam. They used electrofishing equipment and nets to capture fish that were stranded in shallow, isolated pools and move them to the main river channel.
“They observed many surviving fish, including sculpin and a few trout of various sizes. Relatively few dead trout were observed, and most fish were salvaged between Quake Lake and Hebgen Dam. Water levels are still low in the upper Madison, and lasting impacts to the fishery are still unknown.”