Where is the Smith River and why is it so special to trout anglers?
I first floated the Smith River 18 years ago. A friend drew the coveted Smith River float permit and invited me and my 15-month old daughter. I owned no boating gear, didn’t know what a dry bag was and had never done a multi-day raft trip. The five-day trip changed our lives. Winding through the Smith’s 59 miles of deep canyons, rolling and wooded hills, and wide grass flats got into our hearts. It prompted us to begin filling our garage with float gear and, more importantly, filling our lives with river-loving friends.
While that’s a snippet of my personal close encounter with the Smith, it’s a rather common tale. Because of its scenic beauty, renown wild trout fishing, abundant wildlife, rich Native American heritage and rock art, or just the chance it offers to float for 4 or 5 days through remote country, the Smith River has attracted enough interest that since 1989 it has been the only river in Montana that requires a permit to float in order to protect the river and its many designated campsites from overuse. Every year, shortly after New Years, people who aim to float the Smith begin watching the snowpack in the nearby Big Belt and Little Belt mountains to gage the kind of flows the Smith might have as it winds its way north and west from those headwater mountains through ag and ranching land in Meagher County to its confluence on the east bank of the Missouri River above Great Falls, Montana.
Those same snow watchers also begin applying for their float permits and assembling family and friends into potential float parties if they’re lucky enough to draw a permit. I’ve had the chance, through the grace of friends to float it more than half a dozen times. I know people who have done so two, three, and four times as many floats, never tiring of the new experiences and sweet memories the river delivers. I know people who have proposed to their future spouses, gotten married, honeymooned, and spread their loved ones ashes in or along the Smith. It’s that kind of place. That’s doubly true for diehard trout anglers, who know and the Smith as a fickle and fascinating fishery. People apply for April and May trips, willing to chance snow squals, ice jams, cold rain or being blown out from runoff in the hopes of hitting an epic day or two of early mayflies, an elusive skwala hatch, or just a fierce streamer bite by the resident rainbow and brown trout. Because the Smith float season is short (usually late April through early or mid-July) and limited by permit, its fish see fewer hooks than most places. I’ve never seen brown trout jump as vigorously anywhere else as they do on the Smith.
The Smith River has a proposed gold mine, how is the mine a threat to this fishery?
An Australian-owned company, Tintina (owned by parent company Sandfire Resources) began proposing to build a large-scale copper mine in the headwaters of the Smith River in 2014. The mine would be located adjacent to the Sheep Creek tributary of the Smith River. Sheep Creek joins the Smith directly across the boat launch for the Smith River’s permitted float stretch.
More importantly, Sheep Creek provides up to half the flow of the Smith River at times of the year and is the Smith’s most important trout spawning tributary. The mine threatens to significantly reduce flows in Sheep Creek and, hence the Smith River, which already struggles with low water in mid-summer through fall. The copper ore that would be mined is also very high in sulfide compounds, which readily produce acid mine drainage, that classic rust-orange water that flows from many abandoned mines in the West and is a toxic cocktail of sulfuric acid and heavy metals.
The Black Butte Copper Mine would include milling and treating millions of tons of the rock that could begin producing acid mine drainage. Roughly 12.7 million cubic tons of waste material in an experimental repository the size of 54 football fields. When it comes to storing toxic waste material from mines like this, it’s not if but when they begin producing acid mine drainage, leak and damage, if not decimate the local groundwater and stream, flowing straight into the Smith River.
Montana TU just got a major decision from the courts recently, can you explain this victory and how it affects the mine proposal?
Since the company first proposed this mine, Montana Trout Unlimited along with partners (Trout Unlimited, EarthWorks, MEIC, American Rivers and EarthJustice) have been battling to protect the Smith from the risks of the mine. After the state’s mine permitting agency, the Department of Environmental Quality, permitted the Black Butte Copper Mine, failing to heed the comments of more than 12,000 Montanans opposing this mine, as well as the extensive independent research that we provided that shows the risks this mine poses to the river and fishery, MTU and partners filed a lawsuit in the Meagher County District Court challenging the mine permit.
In early April, 2022, the judge in our case ruled unequivocally in our favor on all the claims we filed. In the ruling, the Court stated: “Plaintiffs claim that DEQ failed to ensure the safety and stability of Tintina’s tailings storage facility, failed to prevent excessive nitrogen from entering Sheep Creek and contributing to the algal blooms that chose out fish and other aquatic life, and failed to consider reasonable alternatives to alleviate or avoid potential environmental harms…This Court finds that DEQ’s decision to permit the Black Butte Copper Mine was arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful.”
Based on that resounding judgment, we will now ask the court to revoke the mine permit. We fully expect the DEQ and Tintina to appeal this decision to the Montana Supreme Court, where we will again make our strongest case that this mine does not protect the water quality and quantity of Sheep Creek and the Smith River, thus jeopardizing the trout fishery, environment, economy, recreational values and Native American cultural heritage.
If someone wants to get involved in protecting the Smith River what is their best course of action?
At this point, all the public comment periods for the mine permitting process have passed. But there is still a need for anyone interested in being involved to continuing letting people know that the mine is not a foregone conclusion. In addition to the recent court victory, which we aim to uphold in the Montana Supreme Court, we are challenging the company’s water right claims, which Tintina cannot mine without.
So, please keep spreading the word that the Smith still needs protection from this mine and there are conservation groups working to make that happen. Tell your fishing and floating family and friends. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper (especially if you’re in Montana) in order to keep educating the public on the risks of the mine and what’s being done. And, by all means, if you have the capacity, support the groups driving the current litigation efforts and long-term campaign to save this treasured river and place for future generations.
Can you tell us about yourself and about what Montana TU's is working on this year?
My wife and I moved to Montana in 2000. Our daughter was born here in 2003 and has floated rivers in this state and the West every year since. Along the way, I earned a PhD in environmental history at UM, wrote Restoring the Shining Waters, a book about the removal of the Milltown Dam at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers and the history of Superfund, worked for years researching Superfund sites around the country, and then was hired by MTU in 2016. I have been the executive direct at MTU since 2017. When not working to conserve, protect and restore Montana’s coldwater fisheries, I have walked, jogged, pedaled, paddled, rowed, fished, hunted, skied and ogled as many wild places and open spaces in the state as possible, most enjoyably when I’m in the company of my wife, daughter, dog, and friends.
In addition to continuing to protect the Smith River, MTU’s focus for 2022 will be on keeping more water in our streams and rivers as drought continues to impact all water users in the state. We will also continue to invest in restoration, habitat improvement and protection and public access across the state, with a special emphasis on projects in southwest Montana.
In 2022 we are also thrilled to bring back our in-person 5-day Youth Conservation and Fly-Fishing Camp at Georgetown Lake (let us know if you want to volunteer to help teach the next generation of anglers and conservationists!).
Finally, we’ll keep a laser focus on maintaining Montana’s gold standard of wild trout management, especially as we head into the 2023 Montana Legislative session. If you have questions or thoughts about our work, check out our website (https://montanatu.org/), follow us on social media, call our office (406-543-0054) or email us (contact info on our website) anytime!
Meet the Author:David Brooks most recently served Montana TU as Conservation Director and became Executive Director in May 2017. He is a trained environmental historian who studied Superfund sites and watershed issues. As part of earning his PhD in history at the University of Montana, David wrote the book on Superfund cleanup of the Milltown Dam site on the Clark Fork