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Fish stranded from dam malfunction on Montana river

Madison River at Raynold's Pass Fishing Access Site on Dec. 1, 2021.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
Madison River at Raynold's Pass Fishing Access Site on Dec. 1, 2021.

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Wildlife workers and volunteers scrambled Wednesday to save trout and other fish stranded by an abrupt drop in water levels on a Montana river that’s renowned among anglers.

A malfunctioning gate that lets water out of Hebgen Dam just west of Yellowstone National Park caused flows into the Madison River to plummet early Tuesday, according to dam operator NorthWestern Energy.

That left side channels cut off from the main river and some areas with no water. Some fish already have died, according to outfitters who provided photos of fish lying on exposed rock beds that normally would be covered with water.

More fish are at risk in the cut-off side channels, fly fishing shop owner Kelly Galloup said.

Galloup said bigger trout likely moved to deeper pools as water levels dropped. But he expected a significant impact on fish born last year that were too small to escape the sudden drop in flows.

There was no immediate estimate of the number of fish stranded, but Galloup said hundreds had been rescued Tuesday.

The Madison is a highly regarded “blue-ribbon” trout fishery that flows out of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and eventually feeds into the Missouri River. Hebgen Dam is used to control water flows for downstream hydroelectric plants.

Volunteers on Tuesday began scooping fish out of the channels and returning them to the main stem of the river. That work continued Wednesday, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials closed down fishing along the upper river until full flows can be restored.

“We scooped yesterday all day on the upper river,” Galloup said. “We’re just concentrating on the side channels, trying to rescue whatever we can find.”

NorthWestern Energy said river flows may not be fully restored for several days. The utility asked people to avoid the area around the dam where equipment and crews were at work on repairs.

“The priority is safety and restoring full flows to the Madison River as quickly as possible,” said NorthWestern Energy spokesperson Jo Dee Black. Workers late Tuesday began releasing water over the dam's spillway, which provided a small increase in flows, Black said.

State officials said the damage inflicted on the fishery was still unclear.

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