Ranchers Strike Back at Stream Access

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Ranchers unhappy with state stream access laws are moving a bill through the Legislature that tinkers with irrigation ditch rules despite strong resistance from anglers.

The Republican majority in the House mustered up enough votes Wednesday to endorse the measure 55-44.

The bill opens up an issue decided by the Supreme Court in 2008 declaring that a slough that runs through the Bitterroot Valley property of 1980s rocker Huey Lewis and others is a public waterway and open to recreational use under the state stream access law.

The 16-mile-long Mitchell Slough splits from the Bitterroot River at Corvallis and rejoins it near Stevensville. It has been in dispute for years by anglers who say it is a side channel they have fished for years and landowners who argue it is a private ditch or canal.

The state’s stream access law says that Montana rivers and streams are open to all if reached from public property, even if they eventually flow through private land.

House Bill 309 supporters say they need to make sure such irrigation ditches are not open to public access. They argue the court ruling upset the balance struck with the state’s original stream access law 25 years ago.

“They are designed to irrigate, not recreate,” said Rep. Jeff Welborn, a Republican rancher from Dillon.

Opponents argued the bill could also apply to hundreds of miles of side channels and undoes much of the state’s stream access law. They noted the Supreme Court found the disputed slough that launched the issue into prominence had long been used as a side channel of the main river.

Democrats argued the divisive bill is distracting from more important matters and will only help a handful of landowners angry over the court’s decision, and would certainly lead to more litigation between sportsmen groups and landowners.

Sen. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings, said House Republicans are turning their backs on sportsmen and anglers, but predicted the bill could be stopped in the Senate.

“I think there’s a coalition who will stand up for Montana’s sportsmen and women,” Van Dyk said. “The House GOP’s actions today are par for the course. The monkeys have gotten a hold of the zookeeper’s keys over there.”

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