Snow fell this winter. A bunch of it, especially way up the Yellowstone River basin. The mountains were loaded when the snow began to melt.
Anglers and river users were optimistic about this summer, and the optimism hasn’t disappeared. Even as July and August got hot, the Yellowstone River stayed big and cool. Water temperatures and flows have been looking good.
“Right now, everybody is feeling good about the river,” said Dan Vermillion, an outfitter in Livingston and the chair of Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission.
It’s a heartening sight, especially after the region saw the river suffer last year. Low flows and high water temperatures teamed up with a parasite to kill thousands of mountain whitefish. In response, the state closed a large portion of the river plus its tributaries to all recreation as a way to prevent spread and give the fish a break.
The river was fully reopened a little more than a month later, but in the meantime, the region’s economy took a hit. Fly shops and rafting companies lost money. Hotels and restaurants lost traffic. In places where similar die-offs have occurred, the kills have happened annually, so people wondered if that was how every August would be from now on.
The event hasn’t repeated so far this year, and it isn’t expected to. Earlier this month, the top fisheries official for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said the agency doesn’t expect any major die-off this year. With some of summer left, there’s still a chance something could happen, but it looks good for now.
It won’t always look good. The parasite isn’t leaving, and climate change has already made early runoff and poor late summer flows more frequent. State officials, conservationists and locals are trying to use the momentum created by last year’s crisis to be better prepared for the next one.
Crafting a response
After it became apparent that a microscopic parasite that causes proliferative kidney disease was what killed the fish in the Yellowstone River, state officials banned all recreation on 183 miles of the river and on every tributary that dumped into that stretch. It was an unprecedented move, but the decision-makers figured easing any source of stress might help fish survive.
Vermillion was one of the people who helped make the decision, and he thinks it did some good. The majority of the kill was concentrated in one section of the river, and he thinks keeping people off the river for a while prevented the same density of fish deaths from creeping downstream.
But John Bailey, the owner of Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop, has quibbles with that closure. He thinks it was too heavy-handed.
“They got so scared they overdid what they should have,” Bailey said.
Like other shops in the area, Bailey cancelled fishing trips he’d sold to clients. He lost a bunch of business, and even after the river reopened, people weren’t coming to him for a fishing trip. He said it wiped out three months of business.
“That was really devastating,” he said. “And then we went into a hard winter.”
Early this year, Bailey was fielding calls from anglers who wondered if they’d be able to fish in August. He couldn’t give an answer beyond optimism about the snowpack. He didn’t know what the state might do if the kill happened again.
Vermillion said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has started drafting a sort of response plan for outbreaks like this, something that will safeguard the river and offer certainty to people like John Bailey.
“The idea of course is to minimize the impact on the public while maximizing the protection of the resource,” he said. “We know these events will occur again.”
The details have not been worked out, and Vermillion didn’t say when they would be. He did say that managing something like a disease outbreak is challenging. The state has a system for helping fish survive low flows and high temperatures — restricting fishing to the morning hours when water is cooler — but disease outbreaks are more complicated.
“It’s going to be really hard to fit in a box,” Vermillion said.
Coming to the table
Last April, fishing guides, ranchers and environmentalists spent two days talking about the river at the Livingston Depot. Called the Yellowstone River Symposium, the meetings were meant to jump-start some sort of watershed group that includes all sides of the community.
In the months since, a skeleton for that group has started to form, which they’re calling the Upper Yellowstone River Partnership. Wendy Weaver, the executive director of Montana Aquatic Resources Service, has been planning the meetings that have taken place since. There have been four, and she said between 15 and 25 people have attended the meetings.
It’s still in its infancy, but the idea is that the group will address threats the river faces. Not just the potential for fish to die or river flows to get low, but also development in the Paradise Valley and whatever else may come. Some who go to the meetings want to see more conservation projects happen on the river. Others would rather see nothing change and don’t feel the river is facing serious threats.
To her, the key to success is getting all sides of the conversation to show up.
“It’s just really critical to have the proper stakeholder buy-in so that nobody feels like they’re left behind,” Weaver said.
But agricultural water users are suspicious of the group’s motives. During the fish kill, some muttered that if ranchers weren’t pulling so much water out of the river the fish kill wouldn’t have happened. State biologists disputed that, saying that even if irrigation was shut off the kill would have likely still happened.
But the state’s dismissal of the claim didn’t erase it. Many ranchers were still disgusted by the implication that they are to blame, and some believe that all this new watershed group wants to do is try to take their water.
Marty Malone, a former Park County Commissioner and a rancher near Pray, is one of a few ranchers who have gone to the meetings. He thinks people there do want agricultural water users to give up their water rights, but the solution to him isn’t boycotting the meetings.
“I think ag needs to step up,” Marty Malone said. “This is an opportunity. These people will run over us if we’re not careful. The world is run by those who show up.”
Pat Byorth, the Montana water director for Trout Unlimited’s Western Water and Habitat Project, is another one of the people who have been showing up for the meetings. His job is to try to keep water in the tributaries that dump into the Yellowstone, something that’s important both for spawning habitat and for giving fish a cold-water refuge when water temperatures rise in late summer.
He’s negotiated ways to ensure water remains in a number of streams, often by leasing the water from agricultural users.
“Instream flow leases don’t solve all the problems, but the essential ingredient to healthy fisheries is cold, clean water,” he said.
A major coup for his project was announced last week. Kinross Gold donated the water rights it holds on its Mineral Hill property near Jardine to the group. The company estimated that the rights were worth about 3 billion gallons of water, and that water will now stay in two Yellowstone River tributaries.
He hopes the work of the Upper Yellowstone River Partnership will lead to other projects where they can keep water in tributaries. That doesn’t always come at the expense of agriculture. In some cases, he has worked with irrigators to devise a different way for them to get water — like installing a pipe that sends some water to irrigators and leaves the rest in a stream.
Byorth said they’ve got about a dozen projects in the works throughout the Yellowstone basin now, all at various stages of development. Getting more requires people to come to the table, which he hopes will happen with this new watershed group.
“People that are showing up care, and they want to do something,” Byorth said. “They want to do something meaningful.”
The Yellowstone River is among the top priorities for his project. The group also works on the Clark Fork River, where they are trying to revive a fishery that was once dead. The Yellowstone is the opposite.
“It’s been healthy. It’s pristine,” Byorth said. “But we have a lot to lose there.”
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