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A new program to give the Yellowstone River room to roam during high water was strongly endorsed by the Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday during its meeting in Bozeman.

“I can’t think of a better, more suitable candidate for this project than the Yellowstone River,” said Dan Vermillion, commission chairman, who said the idea is one of the most innovative he’s seen during his years on the commission.

Called channel migration easements, the program would pay certain landowners at areas identified through aerial mapping to allow the Yellowstone River to flood the property.

“We’re looking for places where the channel has moved a lot,” said Tom Hinz, program development director of Montana Aquatic Resources Services, a Bozeman-based nonprofit that formed in 2011.

5-year incubation

Although the program is new, the idea has been under discussion by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for about five years and previously was called a sloughing easement. The delay has partly been in educating landowners about the easements, awaiting up-to-date maps of the river channel and lining up funding for the easements.

“It’s not a popular idea yet because it’s brand new and people are skeptical about what they are getting into,” Hinz said. “They’re concerned about binding their property in a permanent restriction.”

Kendall VanDyk, eastern manager of the Montana Land Reliance, said the easements are new to his office, as well.

“This is a little bit of a diversion from our ordinary business model, but we are excited … to create a template to do innovative projects,” he said.

Funding for the easements is from the Western Area Power Administration, which provided the money to FWP in 2009 and 2010 to develop and implement the program for the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. Unable to locate a willing seller at an agreed-upon price, the money has not been spent.

Willing sellers

In the proposal to the commission, however, Montana Aquatic Resources Services was seeking approval to negotiate with Sidney-area landowners Gerald and Maryellen Navratil for an easement on 88 acres along the lower Yellowstone. The easement would be part of a larger 230-acre easement that would be held by the Montana Land Reliance, but FWP would retain enforcement ability for the channel migration easement.

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“These people have already lost essentially 75 acres of an alfalfa field to the river,” Hinz said. “These people are really interested because they’ve lost a lot and know they are going to lose more.”

The idea behind the easement is to encourage landowners not to riprap the bank to prevent the river’s movement.

“It allows for the natural stream erosive processes that are generally beneficial” for fish and wildlife,” said Bruce Rich, FWP fisheries chief.

On the lower Yellowstone River, such measures are also seen as benefits to the endangered pallid sturgeon — an added plus for the program.

Allowing flooding and the river to migrate also maintains the floodplain’s soil fertility and helps with water quality by providing a place for pollutants to settle out. River movement also creates side channels and islands that provide important habitat for fish, according to Mike Backes, Region 7 fisheries manager in Miles City. Landowners can still farm or graze the land under easement.

“Essentially the only right they are giving up is to not stabilize the banks,” Hinz said.

Once an easement agreement is reached with the landowners, an environmental assessment will be written and public comment taken. The Fish and Wildlife Commission will then have another chance to approve or deny the proposal.

More possibilities

Based on mapping more than 300 river miles of the Yellowstone from Laurel to North Dakota, 26 areas have been identified as possible easement locations, Hinz said.

The maps Hinz used were developed by the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a comprehensive cumulative-effects study of the entire 671 miles of the Yellowstone. The maps were created using historic and high-resolution aerial photography of the river from 1950 through 2004, as well as measurements of river movement.

“We’re going to be doing channel migration easements throughout the whole (Yellowstone River) valley at some point,” Hinz said. “We hope the model from the Yellowstone Valley will be transferable to other rivers in Montana — like the Bitterroot and Flathead.”

Hinz has previous experience on such watershed projects. He retired from FWP after 41 years, serving in a variety of capacities including Region 6 supervisor in Glasgow. He also served as the coordinator of the Montana Wetlands Legacy, a partnership of more than 30 organizations, agencies and businesses, which worked to restore and conserve wetland and riparian areas in the state.

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