OM Determines Another Yellowstone Island, Indian Crossing, to be Public Land

Indian Cross­ing Islands Study, Octo­ber, 2013

By Mike Pen­fold, OM Field Pro­gram Director

This report is sub­mit­ted by Our Mon­tana. The work has been com­pleted using the guide­lines and inter­pre­ta­tion of law as artic­u­lated by Tom But­ler of the Mon­tana Depart­ment of Nat­ural Resources. The study area is located in Yel­low­stone County gen­er­ally T1S, R26E, sec­tions 2 and 11. The focus of the report is islands in the Yel­low­stone River. The pur­pose of the study is to deter­mine likely own­er­ship of islands we are call­ing, for this report, Indian Cross­ing Islands. This name comes from reported his­tory of the area being used by herds of buf­falo and Indi­ans to cross the Yel­low­stone River. Sar­gent Pryor, of the Corps of Dis­cov­ery, crossed a series of islands with horses in 1806. The River has sev­eral islands in this area which afforded the oppor­tu­nity to cross the River dur­ing peri­ods of low flow. Plats 10 and 11 show the sig­nif­i­cant changes caused by river action in a brief five-year period. It is clear that islands and river chan­nels are in con­stant change in this par­tic­u­lar reach of the river.

In sum­mary, we con­clude that there are two islands which are in the process of merg­ing. The North­ern­most island has arisen from the chan­nel of the Yel­low­stone River and own­er­ship should be asserted by the State of Mon­tana. The South­ern­most island has been mod­i­fied by ero­sion and accre­tion and still con­tains orig­i­nal own­er­ship by the City of Billings and there­fore the mod­i­fied island is owned by that City of Billings, Montana.

Fol­low­ing is the analy­sis by which we come to those con­clu­sions. Our con­clu­sions are based on study of land records, sur­veys, pho­tographs and aer­ial images taken at var­i­ous times over the decades, aer­ial images were geo ref­er­enced to more accu­rately deter­mine island changes over time.

The area is bor­dered on the west by Mys­tic City Park of Billings, pri­vate land and two pri­vate camp­grounds. See Plat 1, below. This aer­ial image was taken in 2011. The area out­lined in green is the focus of this study.. The area is about 80 acres in size. The islands are veg­e­tated with Cot­ton­woods (seedlings to approx­i­mately 60 years in age), wil­lows, var­i­ous grasses, shrubs and water based plants. Wildlife observed include cot­ton­wood gallery birds species, water fowl, white­tail deer, rac­coon and smaller rodents. Some weeds are on the island includ­ing Russ­ian Olive, salt ceder, Knap­weed, Leafy spurge and This­tle. Many flood chan­nels are appar­ent although these islands are pro­vid­ing con­sid­er­able recre­ational use by the pub­lic dur­ing low water peri­ods. It appears that there is some tres­pass (long term camp­ing) tak­ing place on these islands. Soils include flood chan­nels of sand, gravel and cob­ble to areas of sandy loam in older areas of the island.


This map (Plat 2, below) was down­loaded from Topo Maps of Mon­tana. It is based on the most cur­rent USGS maps. The area out­lined in blue is about 80 acres in size and does not show the most cur­rent shapes of the stud­ied islands.


Plat 3, below, shows cur­rent land own­er­ship, from Yel­low­stone County records, pro­jected on a 2011 aer­ial image. The plat indi­cates that the study area is par­tially owned by the City of Billings on the north­east­ern edge. County records show no own­ers for the bulk of the study area.


Plat 3

Plat 4, below, shows the orig­i­nal gov­ern­ment land office sur­vey maps. The sur­veys were com­pleted in the 1880s. No islands are shown in the vicin­ity of the study area. This does not nec­es­sar­ily mean there were no islands in the loca­tion. His­tory tells us that there were likely islands or at least sand­bars that facil­i­tated this area as a his­tor­i­cal cross­ing area of the river.


Plat 5 is a 1937 aer­ial image of the study area. This image has cur­rent county recorded own­er­ship geo ref­er­enced onto the image. Note that islands are clearly vis­i­ble near the east bank and toward the cen­ter of the river. These islands will be deeded to the City of Billings in the future by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. In 1937 these islands were con­sid­ered fed­eral in that they existed prior to Mon­tana State­hood. There is a small un-vegetated sand­bar near the loca­tion of the future Mys­tic Park. It will be seen that this sand­bar builds into a veg­e­tated island in the future.


Plat 6 shows a 1941 map of Billings. It is inter­est­ing in that the maps shows two islands in the mid­dle of the river within the study area. It shows no island next to the pri­vate land and the area that will become Mys­tic Park. This should not be con­sid­ered a legal map but is a point of interest.


Plat 6

Plat 7 is a 1950’s image with cur­rent county own­er­ship records geo ref­er­enced onto the image. Note that the sand­bar shown in the 1937 image is devel­op­ing into a veg­e­tated island. Note there is a sand­bar near the south­west tip of the south­ern island. This sand­bar seems to dis­ap­pear in the 1980’s.


Plat 7

Plat 8. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment sur­veyed two islands in the study area in 1952. Lots 9, 10 and 12 were cre­ated. Note that lot 8 was iden­ti­fied but not sur­veyed. This is the small sand­bar that can be seen in Plat 7. We believe lot 8 was eroded away by the 1980’s.


Plat 8

The City of Billings applied to the BLM in the 1980’s for a patent under the Recre­ation and Pub­lic Pur­poses Act. The City was suc­cess­ful and granted (deeded) the two islands for recre­ation and parks.

Plat 9. This is a par­tial map of Billings in the 1980’s; it cov­ers the study area. Note that the islands are shown as “Big Park”. Those islands have been (or were about to be acquired) by the City of Billings dur­ing this period. The area next to what is now Mys­tic Park is shown as an island. The map devel­op­ers at this time, in the 1980’s, rec­og­nized a new island next to the Mys­tic Park area. Note also that the area on plat 8, shown as Lot 8, is not indi­cated on this 1980‘s City map.


Plats 10 and 11. These aer­ial images show the changes to these two islands from 1937 to 2011. We have placed arrows on these images to make com­par­i­son some­what easier.



A gen­eral con­clu­sion is that Indian Cross­ing Islands are islands in a nav­i­ga­ble river, the Yel­low­stone. Veg­e­ta­tion and soil on the islands is con­sis­tent with island devel­op­ment and mod­i­fi­ca­tion by erosion.

Point A on the plats indi­cates a loca­tion on the island we believe is in State own­er­ship. Note in the 1937 image the island is no more than a sand­bar with a stream chan­nel on both sides. In the 1950 image the sand­bar has enlarged and started to become veg­e­tated. It con­tin­ues to have a stream chan­nel on both sides. By 1996 and 2011 there is a veg­e­tated island that is becom­ing attached to the West bank of the river. We con­clude that this is an island that has formed by ver­ti­cal accre­tion from the bed of the nav­i­ga­ble Yel­low­stone River and is owned by the State of Montana.

Point B on the plats indi­cated a loca­tion on the island we believe is in own­er­ship of the City of Billings. Note the 1937 and 1950 pho­tos indi­cate a veg­e­tated island. Geo ref­er­enced cur­rent own­er­ship indi­cates the island was rel­a­tively sta­ble dur­ing this period. The 1996 and 2011 images show that the main chan­nel of the river has moved to the east and sub­stan­tial new land has accreted to the west of the City’s own­er­ship. By 2011 the chan­nel west of the island has become more of a flood chan­nel. This flood chan­nel con­tin­ues to sep­a­rate the City’s island from that of the State. The City owned island has been eroded on the east and enlarged on the west by accre­tion. The accreted land is low ele­va­tion, veg­e­ta­tion is gen­er­ally pio­neer in nature, the land lies down­stream or adja­cent and con­nected to the City owned prop­erty. We con­clude that this island is owned by the City of Billings.

Plat 12 is a series of cur­rent pic­tures (2013). These show veg­e­ta­tion and some flood chan­nels. Note that Point A and Point B labeled on two of the pic­tures refer to the approx­i­mate points labeled A and 6on Plat 10 and 11.