Dangerous dam shuts out fishers, floaters in Bitterroot


CORVALLIS, Mont. - Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has no specifics on when a stretch of the Bitterroot River between Woodside Cutoff and the Tucker fishing access will reopen. High water contributed to a string of accidents near a diversion dam, which finally forced officials to close the river on April 11.

The Bitterroot River is choked with snowmelt. Not only does this make the river run higher, but faster as well.

The danger zone is a diversion dam in the middle of the closed stretch north of Corvallis. The dam directs some of the water into an irrigation ditch. The area is isolated by acres of farmland that uses the water.

Up until about 3 years ago the main channel of the Bitterroot River bypassed the dam; but the meandering nature of such waterways can change course at a moment's notice.

Since then, floaters have the dam blocking their path. There is a spot for floaters to get out of the water and go around the dam, called a portage, but the fast water makes doing so nearly impossible. If you miss the portage, it's only a few seconds before you float over the dam and into the churning waters on its backside.

The violent eddies and vortexes created by the dam can trap a person underwater for far longer than they can hold their breath. In June 2013 a 6-year-old girl died after floating over the dam.

Three incidents at the dam this year prompted FWP to act. While FWP doesn't own the dam and usually doesn't shut down river corridors for long stretches, FWP District Fisheries Manager Pat Saffel says that the situation is dangerous enough to prompt such quick action.

River access is important for Montana recreation, and some may not agree with the total shutdown of the area.

In a report from the Associated Press, signs saying "free our river" were seen along the banks on Wednesday.

Saffel says that until a solution is developed to get people around the dam safely, the river will remain closed. If no alternative solution is found, the river will likely be closed until the end of spring snowmelt in July.

FWP is now taking public comment on what should be done to make the area around the dam safe. Email your comments to or call 406-542-5540.