HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer hung a “gone fishing” sign in his Helena office, when he and legendary fly fisher Bud Lilly marked the return of the fishery in Silver Bow Creek west of Butte by casting a few lines.
For the first time ever, the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has assigned special fishing regulations to Silver Bow Creek and its tributaries, the location of a major Superfund cleanup of century-old mine waste contamination.
“There is no better barometer of the health of Silver Bow Creek than trout returning to their natural habitat,” Schweitzer said. “Fishing this creek is something that no one has done since our great-great grandparents.”
Schweitzer credits the comeback to Superfund remediation by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and EPA, and restoration by the Department of Justice Natural Resource Damage Program.
The fish population is still on the rebound and considered low density, especially the native westslope cutthroat. The special regulations require anglers to release cutthroat, and they can keep brook and rainbow trout.
A few years ago, the state started doing annual surveys of the fish population in Silver Bow Creek. The surveys showed that fish were present and the number of cutthroat, brook and rainbow trout was gradually growing. Wildlife too—mink, trumpet swans, deer and elk—now inhabit the remediated wetlands.
In 1983, the EPA listed the Silver Bow Creek/Butte area as a federal Superfund site. Contamination was caused by flood events that discharged century-old tailings and other mine wastes containing elevated concentrations of metals to Silver Bow Creek. These toxic discharges polluted the stream and floodplain, eliminating aquatic life.
Since 1999, a $120 million project has been underway to clean up 22 miles of Silver Bow Creek from Butte to the Warm Springs Ponds. The DEQ, with oversight from the EPA, is coordinating cleanup of the creek with the NRD Program. Funds from an EPA, DEQ, and NRD legal settlement with ARCO are paying for the cleanup, which is expected to be completed in the next couple of years.
“By 2014, the project should be complete, under budget, and in the hands of the people of Montana,” Schweitzer said.
The remediation and restoration of Silver Bow Creek is the largest project of its type in the U.S. and has won local, national and international awards for environmental excellence.