A $120 million project to clean up century-old mining waste that polluted Silver Bow Creek near Butte is paying dividends as the fishery is returning, leading the state to set fishing regulations for the stream and its tributaries for the first time.
“This is a major milestone in the Silver Bow Creek Superfund cleanup,” Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Monday as he tried his luck at catching trout. “This once-polluted dead zone has come back to life, and nature is back in control.”
Despite being guided by legendary fly fisherman Bud Lilly and trying several flies and lures, the governor was skunked.
“As long as my dog is happy, then that’s a good day of fishing,” Schweitzer said.
Lilly, who had never fished Silver Bow Creek, said he was happy to see the stream has been cleaned up and is sustaining fish.
“That creek is more valuable than copper and gold,” Lilly said.
The state fishing regulations for Silver Bow Creek require anglers to release any westslope cutthroat trout they catch, but they are allowed to keep brook and rainbow trout.
“It was Bud Lilly who first told us catch them and release them,” Schweitzer noted.
“A fish is too valuable to be caught only once,” Lilly said.
The creek was contaminated when flooding discharged century-old tailings and other metal-laden mine wastes into the creek. The toxic discharges eliminated aquatic life.
In 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency listed the Silver Bow Creek and Butte area as a federal Superfund site. Since 1999, a $120 million project has been under way to clean up 22 miles of the creek from Butte to Warm Springs ponds.
A few years ago, the state started conducting annual surveys of the fish population in the creek. The surveys showed that fish were present and their numbers were increasing.
Wildlife – including trumpeter swans, deer and elk – again inhabit the remediated wetlands.
“By 2014, the project should be complete, under budget, and in the hands of the people of Montana,” Schweitzer said. “Silver Bow Creek could become a blue ribbon trout stream for our children and children’s children to enjoy.”