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Teton River Redux

Today marks a minor record. The conservation group American Rivers released its annual list of America’s ten most endangered rivers and not a single Montana river made the list. Last year we ranked No. 5 with the North Fork of the Flathead which was imperiled due to the threat of coal and gas mining. Thankfully, that threat has been significantly reduced following an agreement by British Columbia and Montana to prohibit mining in the “wildest river valley in the lower 48”.

Every year since 1986, American Rivers has released their list of America’s ten most endangered rivers. Montana rivers have made the list several times in recent years, including the North Fork Flathead, the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone due to the threat from the New World Mine, the Upper Yellowstone and the Blackfoot. I’m a bit surprised that we didn’t make it this year for threats to the Tongue River from coal mining, or the Bitterroot from dewatering, but I guess every year we stay off the list is a minor milestone.

Teton River photo courtesy of the Angler Guide

Our good neighbors, in Idaho, however, did make the list, for the renewed dam proposal on the Teton River. On June 5th we will mark the 34th anniversary of the Teton Dam disaster. Irrigators decided to build a large earth-fill dam on an unstable volcanic ash flow and the results were predictable with one of the largest dam-failure disasters ever seen. In 1976, eleven people died, more than a billion dollars in property damage occurred, 13,000 head of livestock died and a world-class wild trout fishery was wiped out in the canyon below the dam. I suppose that 34 years is all it takes for stupidity to regain a foothold. There is now a push to rebuild the Teton Dam in the same place, likely with the same result. The Teton River has largely recovered from the 1976 disaster and is home to one of the last strongholds of wild Yellowstone Cutthroat trout. Teton Canyon provides critical winter range for thousands of mule deer that migrate west from the foothills of the Tetons, making it a prime big game hunting area. The Teton River corridor also harbors dozens of bird species including federally protected trumpeter swans, American white pelicans, and bald and golden eagles. What the river does not need now is a replay of a thirty-some year old disaster and the destruction, of an “irreplaceable ecological treasure”. Trout Unlimited is working to see the river designated as an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” based on its extraordinary resources and recreational value and the river classified as Wild and Scenic.

It’s certainly not a done deal. They are only in the study stage. You can help save the Teton River from idiots. Visit the American Rivers Take Action page to learn how.


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