For the second time in the past year, there was heated opposition at a public meeting to a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks plan to build a fish barrier on French Creek, near Wise River, to clear 40 miles of streams with poison and to reintroduce native species to the drainage.
The most recent opposition came Thursday night in a crowded room at Butte's Copper King Hotel, where a contingent of seven FWP officials gathered with a number of landowners, anglers, contractors, and other stakeholders ostensibly to discuss a recently issued document entitled "Supplemental Analysis for the Restoration of Westslope Cutthroat Trout and Arctic Grayling to French Creek."
In response to the continued opposition, agency officials said Friday that the public comment timeline, set to end April 30, would be extended but said they did not yet know for how long.
At the Thursday meeting, after a pair of PowerPoint presentations on technical aspects of the fish barrier's engineering and on analysis of how the barrier would perform in the event of a catastrophic flood, the discussion quickly turned back to much-bigger-picture issues with the project.
Sandy Gordon, who lives in the house about 1,000 feet from the proposed barrier site, began the question-and-answer portion of the meeting by asking, "Since a geotechnical study was never done for the barrier and was signed off on to start the construction, who will be responsible for endangering the lives and safety of my family and grandchildren? Also, who will be responsible if the barrier fails and contaminates our wells?"
After Gordon asked other questions about how rotenone — the fish poison being proposed for use in the project — might harm the Big Hole water supply as well as the animals and humans who rely on it, an engineer from Pioneer Technical discussed the structural integrity of the barrier that he has helped design, a lawyer for FWP gave an "attorney's answer" on the question of responsibility, and FWP's habitat bureau chief discussed the scientific evidence of rotenone's safety.
Over the next couple of hours, the meeting proceeded along similar lines, with people opposed to the project questioning its safety, the agency's motivations, and the fairness of the public process while various agency specialists defended the science and engineering behind the process and explained the benefits of completing the project.
FWP has been planning native fish restoration since at least 2009 and has been formally seeking public input on the proposal since 2013. In 2016, the agency produced an environmental analysis of the project and put it out for public comment. When that analysis received only two public comments, FWP extended the comment period. But in June 2016, the agency issued a decision, which notified the public that FWP planned to proceed with the plan.
Under normal agency processes, that decision notice should have settled the question of whether the barrier would be built and whether existing fish would be killed and westslope cutthroat, Arctic grayling, and other native aquatic species restored to the fishery. But last year, as a growing number of Wise River-area residents caught wind of the plan, opposition to it grew.
That opposition culminated in an August meeting at the Wise River community building, where a crowd of some 70 people had a contentious exchange with agency officials over the plan. Then, in September, the only two bids for building the barrier came in over budget, preventing construction from proceeding immediately.
In response, Butte-based FWP biologist Jim Olsen and his colleagues collected more information, performed additional study, produced the supplemental analysis being discussed this Thursday night, and reopened the comment period as of March 30.
While the supplemental analysis did not recommend many changes to the original plan for French Creek, it did respond to a number of public comments on a range of issues, many of which were raised at the August meeting in Wise River. The new analysis also sought to explain why the project is important, why French Creek is an appealing site for native fish restoration, why the naturally occurring substance rotenone will be used to poison non-native fish, and why the original proposed location for the fish barrier remains the best site for it despite consideration of alternative barrier locations.
But as Thursday's meeting wore on, it became clear that many in the audience still felt as though their concerns about the project had not been addressed, even as some expressed support for the agency's work.
These lingering concerns led FWP fisheries administrator Eileen Ryce to suggest the agency could accommodate requests for more time to provide input and express concerns about the project by extending the latest comment period — which was set to end April 30 — by another 30 days. On Friday, FWP officials confirmed that the public comment time would be extended for an as-yet-undetermined period.
Thursday, the agency urged meeting attendees to submit their comment at the meeting itself, either in writing or aloud.
As people did so, it became clear that there was more than just opposition to the project, with some expressing strong support and others ambivalence.
Dave McKernn rose in favor of the project: "I'm a fisherman. I really appreciate what Fish, Wildlife & Parks is trying to do by restoring the native trout. And I really looking forward to catching those in that basin and also in the Big Hole."
Steve Luebeck seconded the sentiment: "I think projects like this, that reintroduce cutthroat — and grayling, frankly — to this system, are important to do, and I support it. Keep in mind that we have lots of projects on the Big Hole River for grayling. All of them involve some degree of sacrifice for ranchers and landowners. … I understand the sacrifice landowners are asked to make with a project like this, but you're part of a community, and you're part of a community that's given sacrifice the last 25 years, and I applaud that. I applaud that people are willing to step up to the plate and do what it takes to recover sensitive fish. If grayling gets on the endangered species list, it could change life for everybody on the Big Hole."
Lewis Pesanti, however, was among those who was "strongly opposed" to the project.
Pesanti explained that he is the father of three teenage boys who recreate often up French Creek: "Unfortunately, we have one of the boys that is very severely handicapped and very, very sick. This is one of the places — to him, it's not home, but it's one of the next closest things. … He's very, very fragile. I assure you that he will not be in those waters again if this (project) goes on, because of that (the use of rotenone). So I don't think that you guys will be able to explain to that young man why he's not going to be able to recreate at French Creek anymore, and I don't think I will be able to either. So I ask you to consider that, 'cause it's a very special place in our hearts and to him, and I'm not going to take the chance with him in those waters."
When the comment period ends — either on April 30 or late next month — the decision about whether to proceed with the project will likely be made by FWP Region 3 Supervisor Mark Deleray, who was in attendance at Thursday's meeting. However, Deleray suggested that due to the controversy the project has elicited, the agency's director, Martha Williams, may make the final call.