A Dam, Dying Fish, and a Montana Farmer’s Lifelong Quest to Right a Wrong
September 12, 2013
In the pantheon of river conservationists, few may leave a legacy larger than that of Roger Muggli, a third-generation farmer in eastern Montana.
Thanks to his decades of efforts to help fish safely pass 12 Mile Dam, an irrigation diversion structure built in 1885 on the Tongue River, a major tributary to the Yellowstone, Muggli has inspired actions throughout the lower Yellowstone watershed aimed at saving the unique assemblage of fish that call that basin home, including the highly endangered pallid sturgeon.
Muggli’s mission to establish fish-friendly river practices began at the ripe age of ten when he knew in his gut that something was seriously wrong.
Not only would the saugers, suckers, channel catfish, sturgeon and other species get blocked by the dam from reaching their spawning grounds upstream, but fish floating down the Tongue toward the Yellowstone were getting swept into the irrigation canals and discharged along with the water onto his family’s farmland.
“I couldn’t stand to watch them die in the field,” Muggli said.
He would scoop stranded fish into buckets, hop on his bike and release them into the Yellowstone River, which flowed near the Muggli farm. One smallmouth bass, which he’d watched flop around and suck mud after the farm water receded, swam back to him after its release into the Yellowstone. The fish tapped the boy’s leg, they made eye contact, and Muggli’s dedication to fish rescue was set.
He tried placing a screen against the headgate of the irrigation canal to keep the fish out of the canal and in the river, but the screen got so plastered with debris that the irrigation water couldn’t get through.
The week he got his driver’s license he took a bucket of fish from his field down to local officials, convinced that they, like him, would be mortified at the death of so many innocent creatures. Instead they shooed him out of the office.
Undeterred, and fortified by his mother’s reminder that he would outlive the older folks shouting him down, he waited for his opportunity.
In 1986, when he was in his late thirties, Muggli got elected to the board of the Tongue and Yellowstone (T&Y) Irrigation District. Both his father and grandfather had served before him, so the Muggli name was well known around Miles City, Montana, where he’s lived his whole life.
Muggli inherited both an unmatched work ethic and deep pride in farming. He’s never been away from his farm for more than two weeks. His father would wonder aloud how they could have such a good life while working only half days – by which he meant 12 hours out of each day’s 24.
In addition to farming 1,700 acres, Muggli owns and operates the biggest feed-making plant in Montana. In the off-season, he and his team turn alfalfa and grains into some 30,000 tons of pellets that feed livestock throughout the state. Last December, Muggli lost an index finger operating machinery in the plant.
From his position on the T&Y Board, Muggli went about building a coalition of partners to solve the fish problem that had plagued him his whole life.
By the late 1990s, the first fruits of his crusade materialized. Having garnered help from public agencies and private conservation groups, Muggli oversaw the installation of a new canal headgate system that includes an inlet with a baffled wall that lets water through but keeps fish out. A passageway guides fish carried into the inlet right back to the river on the other side of the dam.
As a result, many thousands of fish previously siphoned into the irrigation canal to meet their death were now heading downstream to their mother river, the Yellowstone, which in turn is a major tributary to the Missouri, the nation’s longest river.
“You’ve got to fight it to the end or it’s not going to get fixed,” Muggli said.
But at that point Muggli’s mission was only half complete. There was still the problem that 12 Mile Dam – so named because it is located 12 miles upstream from Miles City, where the Tongue empties into the Yellowstone – was blocking fish from reaching their spawning habitats in the Tongue. Unlike salmon, many species of warm water fish cannot jump, so even a relatively short diversion dam like 12 Mile blocked their upstream migration.
In 2007, Muggli’s full dream for a fish-friendly diversion dam was realized. With assistance from state and federal agencies, as well as The Nature Conservancy, a private conservation organization, a $400,000 bypass channel was built to enable fish heading upstream to circumvent 12 Mile Dam.
State fisheries assessments have found that the Muggli Bypass is proving successful in helping a wide variety of native fish move past the dam and head upstream.
“It’s just so gratifying to have it done,” Muggli said.
Soon after the upgrade at 12 Mile, two other diversion structures upstream on the Tongue began to be dismantled – the S-H and Mobley diversion dams. Combined with the Muggli passage, their removal opens up some 190 miles (306 kilometers) of river habitat and spawning grounds.
According to The Nature Conservancy, 31 species of warm water fish that had disappeared from the Tongue are now able to migrate freely up and down this critical Yellowstone tributary.
The success on the Tongue is also inspiring efforts on the Yellowstone River itself.
The Yellowstone, which rises in the Absaroka Range of northwest Wyoming and flows some 690 miles before joining the Missouri, is crucial to the survival of the endangered pallid sturgeon, which has plied the waters of the greater Missouri-Yellowstone basin for millions of years.
Though the Yellowstone is sometimes called the last major free-flowing river in the country because it has no large storage dams, it does have diversion structures, like those on the Tongue, that block sturgeon and other fish from passing up and down the river.
One of those barricades is the Intake Diversion Dam, about 70 miles upstream of the Yellowstone’s confluence with the Missouri. In collaboration with irrigators, conservation organizations and other public agencies, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers are installing fish screens and a bypass channel similar to those at 12 Mile Dam.
These will reduce fish kills due to entrainment in the irrigation canals, and enable pallid sturgeon and other migrating fish to move 237 miles up the Yellowstone from the Missouri, greatly expanding their spawning habitat. Plans for fish passage have also been drawn up for Cartersville Diversion Dam further upstream, which would open up even more river to sturgeon and other warm water fishes of the greater Yellowstone-Missouri basin.
Big efforts like these in the greater Yellowstone watershed require a great deal of collaboration and commitment among all the parties involved.
But the spark for change – to show that productive irrigated farming can be done in ways that are not harmful to fish – may have begun with a 10-year old’s sense that something just wasn’t right about so many fish dying in his family’s fields and his decision to do something about it.
“It’s a complex world and we have to be responsible players in it,” Muggli said. “I want to leave this place better than I found it.”
And as for those naysayers that Muggli’s mother advised him about: I outlived them all, Muggli said. “They’re all pushing up daisies.”
Originally published at National Geographic Newswatch