Yellowstone River Wakeup Call

Yellowstone River Wakeup Call

Matt Klara | Sunday, 28 August 2016

August 19th, 2016. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) announced the closure of the Yellowstone River and nearly all of its tributaries, from the point where it exits Yellowstone National Park downstream for over 180 miles, to all types of water based recreation.

Fishing. Rafting. Tubing. Swimming. Paddle boarding. Soaking tired feet. Everything.

FWP made the call to block all access to the river following the discovery of a parasite in the river which caused a massive die off of mountain whitefish, a native salmonid species to the river.  The parasite causes something called proliferative kidney disease, which is often lethal to fish, including trout.

The closure is an aggressive move, done with the hope of stopping the parasite from spreading to other water bodies.  Clearly the closure impacts local businesses – fishing and rafting guides, rental shops, fly shops, hotels, camp grounds, and more.  But overall the response to the closure has been one of acceptance in hopes that a short term sacrifice will result in better conditions in the long run.

The fish kill and subsequent closure has brought another issue to the forefront – the relationship between water quantity/quality and the health of fish populations in the face of climate change. It's a wakeup call for all of us, whether we like to fish or not.

Here in the USA we still argue about whether climate change and all that comes with it (including increased heat and drought to our region) is human caused.  I’m not going to even try to get into that here.  What is certain is that in the past, say, 20 years, things have changed here in Montana. 

The first big drought most of us recall was in the late 1980s, leading up to the legendary fires in Yellowstone Park in 1988.  Some fisheries were heavily impacted by that drought, and have yet to recover, even thorough the “good water years” of the late 90s.  Now, it seems that drought conditions have become the norm.  By mid- summer, and sometimes even before that, many rivers are down to a trickle and water temps climb outside of the range preferred by the beloved trout (and the less beloved whitefish).  FWP implements smart angling closures for all or part of the day to protect fish from the excess stress that results from being hooked in warm conditions.  As individual anglers we chose to fish for warm water species, or hike high up in to the mountains where the water stays cold year round. 

But are we doing enough?  And can we do enough?  Ranchers and farmers use water to irrigate their crops.  Many of those water rights go back to the 1800s, when everything was different.  Around here, water rights are sacred.  Cities and counties use water too, both diverted from the rivers and pumped from the ground, to provide water to the populace.  Many of us use it to keep the lawn green.  And then something like the fish kill on the Yellowstone happens, and everybody sees that the fish are more likely to become infected and die if they are already stressed due to low, warm water conditions.  And the river is not only closed to fishing, but to everything to love to do at the river.

Maybe the silver lining of this dark cloud will be that we all finally start taking this really seriously, and start to work together to use less water, and leave more water in the rivers.  For the fish, yes, but also for the people.  It would be a start.  And it all starts with a change in mindset.  But that change has already happened in plenty of places.  Maybe we’ll start looking to places like Western Australia, or even Las Vegas, who have implemented astounding measures to conserve water, for ideas that can help our fisheries, our rivers, and our way of life here in Montana.  Yeah, it all costs money.  Low flow showers and water efficient toilets cost money.  Drought tolerant landscaping costs money.  Converting a gravity-fed, flood irrigation system on a farm to a more efficient and effective center pivot sprinkler system costs money.  But having no fish, or no water, or closed rivers, in a place that has an economy that generates something like $2.75 BILLION, annually based on fishing ALONE also costs a lot of money.  And that figure doesn’t even consider all the whitewater rafting, bird watching, camping, and just being by a beautiful river that contributes dollars locally.  At some point we are all going to have to make some hard choices, and get together to decide what’s the most important to us.  Because without the heathy rivers, the wild trout, the family farms and ranches, the funky small towns and “big” cities, and all the good people that stay proud and strong and work TOGETHER through tough times, Montana goes from being “The Last Best Place” to just another place.

Take Care and Fish On,