LIVINGSTON — Thousands of mountain whitefish went belly-up in the Yellowstone River last year thanks to a parasite and poor river conditions. Now people are trying to use the unprecedented kill as a catalyst for adapting to a changing climate.
“It’s really up to us now to try to figure out how we go about adapting our use of the land to accommodate this kind of changing environment that we’re going to see over the next 30 years,” said Dan Vermillion, a local outfitter and the chair of Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Vermillion’s remarks kicked off the first day of the Yellowstone River Symposium, a two-day event put on by Montana Aquatic Resources Services. Organizers hope conversations that start there will ultimately lead to actions supported by a broad range of people in the valley.
Dozens filled the train depot here for the first day, including scientists, representatives of environmental groups, fishing outfitters, government officials and a few ranchers. The first day included panel discussions about the fish kill’s impacts, different conservation efforts and the data that state and federal agencies have gathered on the river basin.
The event comes as the region looks toward summer with caution. The parasite-caused fish kill began in August, and in response, the state shut down all water-based recreation on 183 miles of the Yellowstone River and all the tributaries that dump in between the border of Yellowstone National Park and Laurel.
Fish kept dying for the next several weeks, and the total death toll is estimated to be somewhere in the tens of thousands. The closure was lifted piece by piece over the next month, but tourism-dependent businesses still lost money.
On the other hand, pivots and wheel-lines were allowed to keep running. State officials said halting all irrigation wouldn’t have prevented the kill, but that didn’t stop some from claiming that farmers and ranchers who divert water for irrigation were part of the problem.
Druska Kinkie, of the E Bar P Ranch, was one of a few ranchers to attend the symposium. She said that might have something to do with raw feelings left over from last fall.
“Seeds of mistrust were sown and in the end our community lost a chance to address an issue in a calm and thoughtful manner with all stakeholders present,” Kinkie said.
Kinkie said she wasn’t sure how long it would take to repair the social damage caused by those accusations. But some want agriculture to be part of the solution, to have them at the table to talk about how they can help preserve the river.
Supporters of that sort of collaboration often cite the Big Hole Watershed Committee as an example. The committee has a drought plan that agricultural producers and fishing guides alike adhere to — one that requires irrigators to give up some water and fishermen to give up some days on the water.
Kinkie said the idea of “shared sacrifice” might be tough for some ranchers to swallow.
“If you’re being asked to give up part of your livelihood, that’s different than being asked to give up an ideal,” she said.
Travis Horton, the regional fisheries manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said he’s seen a growing gulf between the two sides, and that any successful collaboration will only come after those with opposite opinions sit down and listen to each other.
“The fishing industry is at odds with the agricultural industry,” he said. “It’s unjustified in my opinion. And the only solution there is working together and understanding one another and not vilifying one another.”
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