ENTERPRISE EDITORIAL: Finding common ground on future of Yellowstone River

Justin Post
Enterprise Managing Editor

Boaters and fly flingers all over Park County are getting the itch.

Mother Nature has given us a few promising days already in 2017, when wind speed and temperature cooperated just enough to make for an outstanding day on the Yellowstone River.

And with daylight savings on the horizon and spring just a few weeks away, there are more great days ahead.

And now the sobering truth: Last year the Yellowstone River suffered an unprecedented fish kill that closed a huge section of the river, to the bane of many local businesses, anglers, restaurants, hotels and fishing guides, among others.

For weeks, dead whitefish floated belly up and down the blue-ribbon fishery.

Sure, we should all continue anxiously anticipating the next boating season, but the real reality is that discussions about future summer fishing seasons on the Yellowstone must also include the possibility of future fish kills, river closures and responses to such events.

What do we do moving forward, and what’s the plan for those who make a living in an industry that’s dependent on fishing and floating the big river?

To begin with, if it’s not already, the mantra “clean, drain, dry” should be incorporated into the lifestyle of all river people.

That is, we should all make it a habit after leaving the river to clean our boats and fishing gear (preferably with warm, soapy water) drain our gear and let it dry before the next trip.

This is no small matter. Climate change is here, it’s impacting the Yellowstone River and it’s going to take our combined effort to preserve its health.

Officials with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks say fish die-offs and river closures will likely happen in the future, now that the microscopic parasite linked to the fish kill exists in the Yellowstone.

This pesky parasite causes Proliferative Kidney Disease, which wildlife biologists say ultimately caused the lion’s share of last year’s whitefish kill-off.

Boaters can take year-round precautions to battle PKD by following the “clean, drain, dry” guideline.

And it’s not just PKD we’re up against.

Invasive mussels were discovered last year in the Treasure State, and FWP has since created a new bureau tasked with managing the detection, prevention and control of the aquatic invasive species.

The state’s new Aquatic Invasive Species Bureau will operate in the agency’s Fisheries Division.

Here in Park County, local stakeholders value perhaps more than anyone moving forward the importance of a more comprehensive approach. That’s because last year’s closure had a significant impact on the community, and we want our friends and neighbors who make their living on the river to have stability and some sense of certainty for the future.

Since last year’s closure, representatives from Park County, the Livingston Area Chamber of Commerce, outfitters, FWP, anglers and other river users have been preparing to deal with PKD and the possibility of future river closures.

A number of public meetings on the topic are planned in the coming months, and anyone who believes they have something to contribute to the effort should make it a point to attend.

The first such event, a town hall meeting, is at 5 p.m. March 29 at the Park County Fairgrounds. Additional meetings are being organized on the issue.

The finger-pointing and frustration stemming from last year’s closure is understandable, to an extent. Tensions ran high in the weeks following the Aug. 19 closure of a 200-mile stretch of the Yellowstone.

Sections of the river were reopened in the following weeks, yet the final closure wasn’t lifted until Sept. 22.

Anglers, outfitters, ranchers and irrigators all have a long history of working together in Montana — a fact that, unfortunately, seemed slightly fractured during the closure.

That can’t be the case moving forward.

There’s much to be discussed in the coming months and years as we work to combat invasive species, not only on the Yellowstone but across Montana.

Now’s the time to plan on attending some of the upcoming meetings, get involved on the issue and work through the difficult discussions.