by Hal Herring

“You know how, when you’re eight years old, it’s hard to watch a fish just dying out of the water? Stranded? It’s not like catching them on a hook and then killing them and eating them. Partly ’cause I knew it was us doing it–trapping them in our ditches and then letting them die out in the fields. I couldn’t stand it.”

It took Miles City, Montana farmer and pellet mill operator Roger Muggli about 44 years to make it right. He started out as a kid, picking up fish from the family’s alfalfa fields, from the lowly buffalo and goldeye to sauger, smallmouth, and channel cats, and putting them in buckets. These were just a few of the thousands of fish sucked in to the T-Y (Tongue -Yellowstone) Irrigation District’s canal system, and left stranded as the water was used to quench the rich farmland of the Yellowstone bottoms. “I’d get on my bike, and ride as hard as I could for the river, to dump those fish in there before they died.”

In addition to his farm and mill work, Muggli is the manager of the T-Y (Tongue and Yellowstone) Irrigation District, just like his father before him, and his grandfather before that. The T-Y supplies the lifeblood to almost 10,000 acres of farm and ranchland in this dry part of eastern Montana, through almost 100 miles of ditches. Shortly after he took over the manager’s job from his father in 1988, Muggli helped to install screens for the intake of the system to help save some of those many thousands of fish “entrained” (sucked in and trapped) and lost in there every summer.

But the real key, Muggli always knew, was to create a bypass around the diversion dam, without sacrificing the water that local agriculture couldn’t do without, and let all those fish- which include locally and nationally imperiled species like the blue sucker, sauger and the pallid sturgeon- to return to the rich habitat and spawning grounds of 50 miles of the Tongue River and its tributaries.

It took him 25 years or so of bullheaded determination, but he made that happen, too. In spring of 2008, Roger Muggli watched the first fish leave the Yellowstone and work their way up the concrete apron of the 760-foot long Muggli Fish Passage. It was the first time that fish had travelled up the Tongue from the Yellowstone since the Twelve-Mile Irrigation Dam was completed in 1886. A lot had been lost in that time- twenty of the estimated forty species of fish that lived in the upper Tongue river had disappeared, but now it was all coming back. The first to come up that he recognized, Muggli said, was a channel cat. “It only took them a few minutes to start moving into the channel.”

“I had people tell me, most of my life, that this would never happen, that it was a waste of my time.” Muggli remembers a time when he first got his driver’s license in 1964, collecting fish from the family’s fields, putting them in a bucket, and driving them to the Fish and Game office in Miles City, to show them just how much was being lost down the irrigation ditches. “I did that several times, and the guy there just wouldn’t listen. Finally he told me, “Nobody cares about this. You can’t fix this, and you will never be able to.” “My mother told me, back then, ‘You shouldn’t get mad at that guy, or hate him. He’s probably a pretty good guy. He just can’t imagine what you are talking about, and he’s limited by what he can’t understand. You should just keep working on this, and maybe you’ll outlive the people like him, those people that can’t imagine it. Maybe you’ll get it done that way.”

Brett French wrote this excellent article about the dramatic success of the Muggli Fish Passage.

And here is the larger story of how these dams–created at a time when the loss of fish and fish species seemed just part of the price of providing water to a thirsty land- affect whole economies, ecosystems and people–and how relatively simple it would be to fix them, without losing any of the irrigation water, and what massive benefits would result. I am a fanatic about fishing for sauger – so these figures from the story floored me; speaking of the Intake Diversion on the main Yellowstone:

“Schmitz estimated that at least 70,000 sauger over 8 inches long disappear into that one canal each year. ‘Let’s say 50,000 of those sauger would have otherwise grown up to be 12 inches and larger,” he says. “That adds up to 10,000 five-fish angler limits lost just at Intake every year. That’s a huge amount of recreation disappearing down a ditch.'”

I would say that 10,000 five fish limits represent a heck of a lot more than recreation. It represents subsistence, thousands of healthy meals for families throughout the Yellowstone Basin. As Roger Muggli told me recently, “I’ve ate every kind of fish that lives in that river, and I haven’t had a bad one yet.”

Just as we as individuals can grow in knowledge as we get older, as a nation- or just as a people- we have grown in our understanding of economics. First, we concentrated only on the products we can grow or extract from the land. Then, slowly, we recognize that we have to grow and extract those products without destroying the great systems of the planet that underlie every other endeavor that we undertake. We can live on the interest, but we can’t spend the principle. It’s a deeper and more practical understanding of economics. But, to heck with that for now. Check out the fish boiling in the Muggli Fish Passage.