Big Hole Watershed Committee

Posted: May 1, 2005
Written by: 
Britta Beckstead


Updated February 2011

Location: The Big Hole River in southwestern Montana

Collaborative partners: Local ranchers; sportsmen, outfitters, and guides; conservationists (including Big Hole River Foundation, Trout Unlimited, Skyline Sportsmen, and the Nature Conservancy); state and federal agencies (including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, BLM, Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, Montana Dept. of Natural Resources)

Objective: To seek understanding of and agreement among individuals and groups with diverse viewpoints on water use and management in the region.


  • Funding general operating costs
  • Expanding staff to meet an increasing workload
  • Dealing with a variety of goals and perceptions of the problems, for example, the conflicting needs of return flows from irrigation and leaving water in the river
  • Encouraging people to talk freely about the issues, developing trust (especially government agencies), and finding common ground

Project summary:

Montana's Big Hole River winds through the mountain ranges, steep canyons and rolling sagebrush prairie south of Butte. The river runs over 150 miles from its headwaters above Jackson to its confluence with the Beaverhead and Ruby Rivers in Twin Bridges. The river is refuge for the last wild population of fluvial Arctic grayling, a trout species now limited in the Lower 48 to the Big Hole River. Although the Big Hole watershed encompasses nearly 1.8 million acres, only about 2,000 people live in the area, many of them making their living by ranching and hay farming. Tourism, recreation, and outfitting are also important to the economy. 67% of the watershed is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, 11% by the BLM, 5% by the state of Montana, and 17% by private owners.

In 1994, stretches of the river reached alarmingly low levels as drought conditions parched the region and irrigators diverted water for cattle and hay fields. That same year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that protection of the grayling was "warranted but precluded" under the Endangered Species Act. Ranchers, worried about how they would share water among themselves, let alone leave enough in the river for the fish, approached then-Governor Marc Racicot with their concerns. The Big Hole Watershed Committee (BHWC) was formed in 1995 with the assistance of the Montana Consensus Council, a state office created by Governor Racicot, which helped set the initial ground rules and provided a facilitator to bring the various stakeholders together. In the early years, it “was literally ranchers on one side of the room and sportsmen and conservation groups on the other,” says Kevin Brown, the current Executive Director of the BHWC, “developing trust and finding common ground was essential.” In 2005, BHWC incorporated separately as a non-profit with 22 governing members and a four-member steering committee that deals with administrative issues in between board meetings.

The Big Hole River

Lessons Learned:

  • The results show that the BWHC’s means to achieve their own goals are meeting the other groups’ goals as well. According to Kevin Brown, it’s important to have “an understanding of all the parties that what’s good for the river and watershed is also good for ranchers, fishermen, cows, fish, and wildlife.” 
  • Think about everyone as a partner as much as possible
  • Focus on the resource, but also look at it as a shared sacrifice among all parties  
  • Make sure the effort is community-driven instead of led by an outside organization
  • Create a safe environment for people to share their thoughts and opinions
  • Prioritize projects
  • Remember that it takes time to build trust among parties


In 1997, the BHWC successfully finalized the first Drought Management Plan in Montana, which sets flow requirements that govern recreation use and voluntary irrigation limits. This plan has the goal of protecting the river from overuse while still maintaining the public's opportunity to enjoy and fish the river. The Plan is amended each year in order to update its goals. To support its floodplain efforts, beginning in 2009 the BHWC’s land use focus shifted to education. They began organizing community education forums on floodplains and the ramifications of development within them. These forums aim to help the community envision the future of the watershed and understand the ways that development in the floodplain affects surface and groundwater, wells, septic systems, and the quantity and quality of water in the river. Through these meetings, BHWC hopes to determine what strategies for river protection would be most amenable to the community.

The BHWC has also been instrumental in the litigation determining whether the Arctic grayling would be considered for Endangered Species status. In 2007, the USFWS decided not to list the grayling as threatened. A new settlement required the USFWS to “evaluate” the status of the Arctic grayling by August 2010 before making a decision. After the review, the USFWS declared that the grayling is “warranted but precluded for listing and protection under the ESA” due to higher priority listings. In the meantime, many of the BHWC’s projects are having a positive effect on habitat and river flows for grayling. The BHWC Wildlife Group has been working with landowners and agencies over the past 2 years on methods for reducing conflict with wolves and addressing elk depredation issues.

The BHWC served on the advisory committee for the Big Hole River Diversion Dam project, which replaced the existing dam to provide a more reliable source of potable water for the city of Butte, and a more efficient, safe, and ecologically-sound system. In general, the group’s activities include regular meetings, identifying and implementing habitat and irrigation improvement projects, facilitating scientific reports and studies, and keeping the public informed of the local issues.

Additional Resources:

Big Hole Watershed Committee Homepage:

Big Hole River Foundation:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife:

Contact information:

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