The 7-year-old dispute between anglers and local landowners—including ’80s pop rocker Huey Lewis—over a waterway in the Bitterroot ends Nov. 17 with a Montana Supreme Court victory for streamside access.
In the decision, penned by Justice Jim Rice and supported by all present members of the bench, the court overturns a 2006 ruling by a Powell County district judge that Mitchell Slough was a manmade irrigation channel and exempt from public access laws. However, plaintiffs with the Bitterroot River Protective Association (BRPA) and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks turned up an 1872 map depicting a waterway running along the same tract of land as the slough, which was previously presumed to be about 100 years old.
The public can now access Mitchell Slough as a natural navigable waterway under state law, even when it runs through private lands.
“Though the extent is disputed, the Mitchell remains partially in the same location as in 1872, when the Government Land Office Survey Map designated the Mitchell as ‘The Right Fork of the St. Mary’s Fork of the Bitterroot River,’” the decision reads. “The claim that man made the Mitchell Slough is a bold one indeed.”
Rice left little ambiguity in authoring the ruling that it would constitute an opening of the waterway to recreation. Independent staffers witnessed fisherman wading into the newly baptized public waters on the morning of Nov. 19, crossing fences erected by the landowners.
“I was really elated when I heard. To me, it was news that finally this battle is close to over,” says Ray Karr, a board member for BRPA. “It started as just a simple, local problem. It ended up as really a fight for water rights statewide. It became much bigger than something just about Mitchell Slough.”