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The Musselshell River, lower right, flows into the Missouri River at UL Bend in this aerial view taken during high water in 2011. Crooked Creek is on the lower left, and the boat ramp is at the bottom center. With a dry year last summer and less snowfall this winter, the boat ramp at Crooked Creek will be left about 3 feet out of the water.

Anglers waded closer to getting greater access to Big Spring Creek north of Lewistown after the Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday approved the pursuit of 19.7 acres adjacent to the waterway.

“Big Spring Creek is a tremendously popular trout stream in central Montana,” Charlie Sperry, recreation management specialist for FWP, told the commission.

The problem is that the creek is too narrow to float and too deep to wade, so anglers need bank access to effectively fish the waterway. To that end, FWP over the years has acquired eight access sites on the 30-mile long stream.

“Having public access along the bank is tremendously valuable,” Sperry said.

Purchasing the land would provide more than a half-mile of stream access on both sides of the creek from the Machler conservation easement downstream to the end of Carroll Trail FAS. Adding the acreage would also tie the area to other conservation easements and a city trails system. And purchase of the land would allow FWP to add bends, pools and other features to restore the stream, which was channelized in the past.

“It would certainly improve the fishery and fishing opportunity,” Sperry said.

He noted that work just begins with the commission’s endorsement. The agency will have to get appraisals, communicate with adjacent landowners, put any proposal out for public comment and get the approval of the state Land Board.

Sperry said there already has been “an overwhelming amount of support” from the community, with 21 letters endorsing the idea sent to the department, including support from the city and the Lewistown Trails Coordinating Committee. The land is owned by the Bank of the Rockies.

The property would complement a 62-acre conservation easement that FWP made in 2007 — the Machler easement — upstream and to the east. That area of Big Spring Creek was also channelized in 1961, reducing the stream’s length by 3,800 feet, according to the department. Work on the stream has increased its length and boosted trout numbers in the stretch.

Funding for the potential acquisition has not yet been identified but could include a grant from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust or funds from the fishing access site acquisition account.

Peck snowpack

Speaking of water, the Natural Resources Conservation Service reported that the mountain snowpack appears to have peaked at 95 percent of normal in the mountains that feed Fort Peck Reservoir. April snow and cold helped delay runoff and allow snowpack to improve in the upper Missouri River basin. But slow snowmelt in the plains allowed that water to soak into dry soils, meaning there was little runoff from plains snow.

“The lower-than-normal mountain snowpack indicates that we are likely to see below-normal runoff during the months of May, June and July,” said Jody Farhat, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Missouri River Water Management Division, in a press release. The corps is in charge of managing Fort Peck Dam. “But it’s still early,” Farhat noted.

Because runoff is trending below normal, the corps is providing “minimum service flow support” for barge navigation on the lower Missouri, Farhat said.

The corps said that releases from Fort Peck Dam averaged 6,000 cfs in April. Releases were boosted to 8,000 cfs in early May, where they will remain for the month. The reservoir ended April at an elevation of 2,222.7 feet, up 0.2 foot from March. The reservoir is forecast to rise more than a foot in May. That won’t be enough to help Crooked Creek Marina on the southwest end of the reservoir. With runoff trending low, recreationists are reminded that the boat launch will be about 3 feet out of the water this season.

Giving back

In an action that it would be nice to see other conservation groups follow, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation announced last week that it will return all of the money raised through special big game tag auctions at its national events to the states.

“RMEF will not accept big game auction tags from any state for fundraising purposes unless all of the revenue derived from it benefits wildlife,” said David Allen, RMEF president and CEO, in a press release. “This is a much needed investment in our wildlife resource and its management, habitat enhancement, and our hunting heritage. It also assists state agencies dealing with budgetary challenges. These tags were intended to benefit wildlife conservation and hunting access, not the organizations selling them.”

The auctions can mean a lot of money to states as many see license revenue fall. As an example, RMEF auctioned off a special Arizona elk permit for $385,000 at its national convention.

“We want to expand this model to all the states we work with relative to their special tags sold at our national convention,” Allen said. “The RMEF convention historically generates $700,000 to $1 million each year in the auction sale of special tags/permits from state game and fish agencies.”

Allen also urged hunters to “demand transparency and hold RMEF and all wildlife agencies and conservation organizations accountable, especially for the money and its use.” He encouraged other wildlife conservation groups to allow full and complete transparency of all their financial information.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.