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An Insiders Take on Yellowstone National Park’s Failure to Close Its Waters

August 25, 2016
An Insiders Take on Yellowstone National Park’s Failure to Close Its Waters

Yellowstone National Park fails to respond to a crisis of unprecedented proportions occurring on its doorstep…
I wept Saturday morning as I read the Bozeman Daily Chronicle article detailing the disaster that has recently struck the Yellowstone River, decimating its beloved Mountain Whitefish. A previously unidentified strain of parasite has proliferated throughout the river’s famed waters, killing thousands of this native fish.

The waters of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—one of the last nearly intact temperate ecosystems on our planet—represent Yellowstone’s lifeblood.  None more so than the mighty ‘Stone. Over the course of the last fifteen years, I’ve worked throughout the region and this river as a ranger naturalist, fly fishing and wildlife guide and I can say with assurance that the longest free flowing river in the contiguous United States has never before seen the amount of traffic and pressure it’s experienced from boaters and anglers this summer. Like many Montanans, I’m a Norman Maclean disciple who is haunted by waters, and reverent of rivers.  Witnessing the overflowing river-access sites throughout the summer has been akin to observing the desecration of the Vatican. A natural environment can only support so much recreation before unraveling at the seams.  Something had to give. And then reports of thousands of dead Mountain Whitefish floating to the surface began leaking out.

Though often maligned by anglers for being less attractive than the more desirable non-native rainbow or brown trout, the native Mountain Whitefish (affectionately known as the Rodney Dangerfield of the trout world) is a canary in the mine species.  It not only belongs in our waters, it indicates the health of this region’s aquatic ecosystem. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) has confirmed the death of more than 3,000 Whitefish, and believe the death toll to be in the tens of thousands.  The disease causes kidney failure by absorption of the microscopic parasite through the gills. Similar outbreaks have occurred in Idaho, Washington and Oregon.  It’s believed that the stress of a hot, dry summer, low waters and heavy recreational pressure made the fish on the Yellowstone River more susceptible.

When MFWP—an agency usually known for kowtowing to the outdoor recreation industry that creates approximately 64,000 jobs and $6 billion annually across Montana—closed 180 miles of the Yellowstone River downstream of the park, including all of its tributaries (from the park’s north boundary in Gardiner to Laurel, west of Billings) to ALL recreation, we knew something dire was unfolding.

But this is where the story takes a strange twist.  While MFWP has clearly proven their intention to protect the watershed that represents one of Montana’s greatest assets, upstream, in our world’s first national park, it’s business as usual.  I can’t even wrap my head around Yellowstone National Park’s head-in-the-sand, cavalier approach to the crisis unfolding just downstream.

Driving through the north entrance days after the Yellowstone River closure, I witnessed a car full of college students loaded down with fly-fishing gear, passing through the entry gates. Had they been on the ‘Stone last week? I don’t know. Neither does the park, but they don’t appear to care or be overly concerned.

When I asked the ranger at the gate whether or not they’ve been told to instruct anglers to clean, drain and dry all of their gear (theoretically how one would kill the parasite) before walking the streams, she was completely unaware of the aquatic crisis unfolding just outside her station. Where were the decontamination stations with NPS staff ready to hose down waders and boots (agents by which these parasites are known to travel) that we should expect to see at EVERY entrance to the Yellowstone National Park?  Instead of making the audacious decision to close their waters, proactively protecting their rivers and streams from a highly contagious disease, YNP claims to be undertaking an “educational campaign”—one that clearly didn’t reach all of its employees.

Educational campaigns are nice, but we need action.

According to MFWP hatchery section chief Eileen Ryce, the number of parasites seen in multiple tissues suggests that “infective load” is very high, making it “very easy for the parasite to spread to other waters.”  Anglers have been banished from the ‘Stone outside of the park—thank you MFWP!—and it doesn’t take an environmental impact statement to know where these anglers are going to end up wetting their lines.

We all saw this coming.  Now is the time for YNP to protect its waters.  Inaction is not an option.

Am I frustrated? Damn right I’m frustrated. Frustrated enough to end my summer social media sabbatical which I was thoroughly enjoying. Keep the pressure on them folks.

Call 307-344-7381 or email https://www.nps.gov/yell/contacts.htm

For a wild world, Michael W. Leach

Sidenote: Driving up the hill to Mammoth Hot Springs I passed two guides with whom I’m familiar, neither of which I’ve known to guide in the park, but just as we feared, anglers and guides are descending upon the park’s waters to pound the rivers and trout after a dry and hot summer where the water is low and warm, and where it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Perhaps the park should consider closing it’s rivers to fishing during the dog days of summer when mercury soars and water temperatures rise knowing that warm water holds less oxygen than cold water, making it harder for fish to combat the surge of lactic acid built up after a long fight with an angler?

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