By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – Legislation to protect East Rosebud Creek as a wild and scenic river has passed the U.S. Senate and is receiving bipartisan support in the House.

If cleared, the bill will protect 20 miles of the creek, which originates near Red Lodge, Montana, in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and flows into the Yellowstone River west of Columbus, as a part of the National Wild and Scenic River System established in 1968.

“This is huge for us,” said Michael Fiebig, associate director for the Northern Rockies chapter of American Rivers. “This is the closest we’ve been to passing. This would be the first wild and scenic designation in Montana in 40 years.”

Rivers identified with outstanding scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, as well as historic and cultural values may be preserved under the Wild and Scenic Act, thereby protecting the waterway and roughly one-quarter mile of land on either bank in a way that maintains a free-flowing state.

No private land will be impacted by the designation of East Rosebud Creek.

“East Rosebud lends access to some of the most stunning, jaw-dropping scenery in Montana,” said Charles Wolf Drimal of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “It is a glacially carved valley surrounded by steep granite walls. Alpine lakes dot the drainage from the valley floor all the way up to its headwaters.”

Drimal said the river is a refuge for native trout, moose and bear, and a 26-mile trail along the East Rosebud that connects to Cooke City is a popular destination for recreationists. “Hundreds of hikers and backpackers hike [the Beaten Path] annually to experience its wildness.”

Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines worked together to gather Senate support of the bill and unanimous approval cleared it from the Senate on Dec. 20.

“This is a historic day for the next generation of Montanans,” Tester said in a Dec. 20 statement. “This bipartisan bill will protect a true treasure and ensure our kids and grandkids can enjoy the wonders of East Rosebud Creek for years to come.”

“East Rosebud Creek is a place where families fish, hike and take in Montana views,” Daines added in the statement. “It is one of Montana’s—and our country’s—natural treasures and it must be preserved for our grandchildren and future generations to enjoy.”

“The fact that Sen. Tester and Sen. Daines worked bipartisan … really means something,” Fiebig said. “It shows that Montanans care about getting things done. … There’s virtually no opposition for this in Montana.”

Rep. Greg Gianforte introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

“The Senate’s action is a good first step in protecting East Rosebud Creek. Conserving the area will strengthen our economy, protect our way of life, and fulfill the clear wishes of the community,” Gianforte said in the Dec. 20 statement. “I will continue working to move the bill forward in the House.”

According to Fiebig, the bill is broadly supported and he’s hopeful that it will pass quickly in the House this January. Should it pass, the East Rosebud could become the first designation made during the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Act, which has origins in Montana.

Brothers Frank and John Craighead, famed conservation biologists who worked within the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, were the initial advocates for a kind of system to protect the nation’s rivers. During the late 1950s, the Craigheads successfully fought a dam proposal on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, and thanks to their continued advocacy, in 1968 President Johnson signed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

“This will kind of be like bringing the wild and scenic designation back home,” Fiebig said.
Less than one-half of 1 percent of Montana’s approximately 170,000 miles of river is designated as wild and scenic.

Montanans for Healthy Rivers, a statewide coalition of conservation organizations, is working together on additional steps to protect other rivers in the state. “The coalition hopes that [the East Rosebud designation] will open the door for more down the road,” Fiebig said.

According to Kristin Gardner, director of the Gallatin River Task Force in Big Sky, the Gallatin River is a candidate for future wild and scenic designation, something which is largely supported by the community. “It’s already very clean, has a great fishery, and the scenery is amazing,” she said.

Additional rivers that have community support for wild and scenic designation include the Upper Madison, Upper Yellowstone and Smith rivers—“rivers that Montanans really care about,” Fiebig said. “If there’s something that we have that other states don’t, it’s an abundance of wild rivers.”