Rick Marcum, the outfitting manager at Missoula’s Grizzly Hackle, is well aware of the dangers posed by an unassuming diversion dam that crosses the Bitter- root River near Corvallis. This spring, one of his guides had to rescue a pair of boaters who had gone over the dam, against the advice of numerous signs warning of the structure’s danger.
“One of the guys had already fallen out and was downstream,” Marcum says. “He got out, which is good, but hypothermia hits, because this was the spring. And [the guide] had to throw a rope over there, get in his boat and go downstream and pop the boat out with a lady still in it, screaming.”
Several other accidents and dangerous close calls have occurred on the dam, including one incident in June 2013 that resulted in the death of a 6-year-old girl. In response, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks closed a nearly 5-mile stretch of the river that included the dam on April 11. On July 7, the stretch reopened.
For Marcum and other outfitters who had been forced to fish elsewhere, the end of the closure came as a relief. For FWP Fisheries Manager Pat Saffel, though, the reopening was cause for concern. Saffel pushed for the closure this spring, and he’s not so sure it should end. “I think, ideally, we would’ve waited a little longer,” he says.
FWP, however, didn’t have a choice. As part of set- tling a petition submitted in May, the agency agreed to a July 7 deadline for reopening the river.
In preparation, Saffel took a jet boat up the Bitter- root on July 2 to view the diversion dam and see what boaters would encounter upon their return. What he found made him feel both better and worse. A tree was now lodged against the dam, its rootball pointing up- stream and catching debris. On the other hand, a river channel to the west of the dam had reopened, providing boaters with a means of bypassing the concrete structure.
As boaters began to float the stretch on July 7, Saffel was already working to raise the $400,000 to $500,000 needed to build a safe passage over the dam and pro- vide users a permanent solution to the hazard.
“Our hope is, maybe we can get something con- structed in April of 2016,” Saffel says.