Youth, Passion, and Collaboration in the Fight to Preserve the Rivers of Southwestern Montana


Written by: Phil Monahan

Wade Fellin grew up on the Big Hole, and his passion for conservation comes from his father.
Photo courtesy Wade Fellin

River conservation groups across the country work tirelessly to protect and restore our favorite streams. Many of the founders of these groups are ready to pass the baton to the next generation, and some groups are more fortunate than others to have landed in the hands of younger passionate individuals. Three of these groups in southwestern Montana are banding together to forge a model of science-based, locally implemented watershed-conservation strategies—and they hope it’ll be on the agenda at your next river meeting. Even more exciting is that these groups are being led by thirty-something conservationist-anglers!

The lead coordinator for bringing these organizations together is Wade Fellin, a native of Wise River, Montana. Wade’s passion and commitment to watershed issues in the Big Hole Valley is infectious, and his exuberance highlights how imperative it is to extend the life of conservation efforts on behalf of Montana’s rivers. His work as an outfitter, lodge manager (with his father Craig at their Orvis endorsed Big Hole Lodge), and most recently as chairman of the Big Hole River Foundation (BHRF) makes it hard to say “no” when Wade comes calling for your help and participation in the watershed’s cause.


David Dockery (left) flies over the Big Hole as part of a river survey.
Photo by Wade Fellin

Wade’s message is resonating with the BHRF board members, and it’s taking hold with his youthful peer group of conservationists and professionals.

“Now more than ever, protecting our fisheries’ health is in our hands,” Wade says. “In today’s climate it’s up to local watershed groups to work together and do more, with less. Too often restoration projects occur where funding is most available, and implementation is most convenient, rather than where restoration is most needed. Additionally, conservation and restoration projects are rarely assessed for effectiveness and almost never assessed within the context of a rivers’ overall health.”

While federal law requires states to periodically assess waterway and fisheries health, it doesn’t lay out clear requirements for how, where, or when states must act to restore degraded waterways. In many states, the lack of a clear restoration mandate has meant that river restoration and conservation projects only occur when funding – or political will – appears.


Guy Alsentzer works on mapping the project.
Photo by Wade Fellin

Answering Wade’s call for collaboration, the Big Hole River Foundation, Wild Rivers Consulting, and Upper Missouri Waterkeeper are developing a holistic annual water-quality monitoring program for the Big Hole River. This trio comprises two young, Montana-raised river enthusiasts and childhood friends—Wade Fellin and David Dockery—and a passionate transplant from Pennsylvania, Guy Alsentzer. Their program will identify polluted areas within the watershed and inform restoration projects in order to ensure time and money are well spent, resulting in bang-for-the-buck river protection that creates measurable improvements.

The goal is to identify annual baseline waterway health in 155 miles of the Big Hole River, home to the last naturally occurring Arctic Grayling and renowned for its trophy trout. And they’re not stopping there. With the Big Hole River annual water quality monitoring project in motion, these groups seek to collaborate with groups on the other eight major waterways that form the Missouri River and help the state of Montana better manage their waterways.

Join us in supporting science-based river protection in Montana and learn how you can develop a monitoring program in your watershed . . . so we can pay it forward!

Click here to visit the Big Hole Foundation.

Click here to visit the Upper Missouri Waterkeeper.

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