Montana statesman Mike Mansfield, summing up the highlights of his career in the U.S. Senate, claimed to be most proud that he "had saved the Yellowstone River from the Corps of Engineers." But while the Yellowstone is still the longest undammed river in the Lower 48, it is now a long way from "saved."
A half-dozen diversion dams interrupt its flow.
Trucks have dumped rock, or riprap, along miles of river bank,
locking what was once a migrating and healthy river system into a
single channel that effectively moves the vast runoff from the high
Rockies but performs less and less like the mighty river that
meandered and eddied its way through the mountains and across the
high plains. Even without dams, this last free-flowing river is
beginning to resemble its tamed counterparts across the
Last summer, fisheries biologist Joel Tohtz
studied trout species in the river near Livingston, Mont., and
discovered a disturbing absence. Trout populations were down 60
percent from a previous survey, and the decline was a general one -
there were simply very few fish, of any age class, in this
traditionally very productive stretch of the river.
"I would have to guess that the number of
stabilization projects in that area is responsible for the
decline," Tohtz says. "It is an unstable and heavily populated part
of the river, and we have confined it for those very reasons. In
confining it, we have made it a downspout."
Back-to-back record flood years in 1996
and 1997 made the problem much worse, spurring riverfront property
owners to embark on a frenzy of what the Greater Yellowstone
Coalition has called "riprap anarchy."
common riprap method is to use heavy equipment to smooth eroding
banks and then blanket them with a layer of large boulders, a
process that is also referred to as "armoring." Tohtz describes the
most heavily armored sections as performing "like a fire-hose" at
high water, sweeping everything downstream. Where normally the
river would overflow its banks and dissipate its energy into the
surrounding cottonwoods, willows and grasslands of its floodplain,
a confined river can only scour its own channel down to bedrock or
disperse its energy at an unconfined stretch downstream. That
raises serious problems for any landowners along the
"Riprap begets riprap," says Missoula
hydrologist and river consultant Bruce Anderson. "A river like the
Yellowstone is a completely dynamic system. If you pin it down one
place, the energy moves somewhere else. This fact forces a
landowner downstream of a riprap project to consider a riprap
project of his own."
In response, the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Agency asked the Corps for a moratorium on
stabilization projects. Corps officials refused, saying that under
current regulations, the Corps could not deny landowners the
permits to protect their property from the
During a three-year period beginning in
1995, the Corps permitted 78 rock barbs - walls of rock that jut
into the current - and more than 11 miles of rock riprap in the
portion of the Yellowstone that flows through Park
Its entire, 600-mile length - from its
source in Yellowstone National Park to where it meets the Missouri
River just across the North Dakota border - is threatened. Once the
river flows north out of the park and reaches Livingston, it turns
to the east and sets off across the plains of eastern Montana.
"The trend is going all the way down the river,"
says Rob Hazlewood of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in
Montana. "It's not just in Park County. We're equally concerned
about the rest of the river."
In Park County, 25
percent of the river's banks are covered by blanket riprap or
manipulated by large dikes, and permits were issued last summer to
blanket thousands more feet of bank near Livingston. Although the
Corps does weigh both the concerns of the landowner and the
possible ecological effects of such projects before issuing a
permit, each project is reviewed individually - cumulative effects
are not considered.
In 1996 and 1997, the Fish
and Wildlife Service wrote dozens of letters to the Corps
protesting riprap projects. The Corps never once responded.
"We may not have replied directly to the USFWS,
but we did try to address their concerns," says Allan Steinle of
the Corps of Engineers. The Corps' critics
"They were turning the river into a
rock-lined rain gutter simply because people wanted to live in the
floodplain," says Hazlewood. "The Corps just kept on issuing the
permits, in direct conflict with our interests at Fish and
In response, the agency asked the
Corps for a moratorium on stabilization projects. The Corps
refused. Afterward, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot created the Upper
Yellowstone Task Force to oversee a three- to five-year study of
how riprap projects are affecting the health of the river
Working toward a
"Let's thank God they didn't get the
moratorium," says John Bailey, chairman of the task force. Bailey
spoke from his office in the back of Don Bailey's tackle shop, a
longtime mecca for flyfishers from all over the world. "You've got
a river here that people have been putting riprap in for a long,
long, time. The repercussions of going cold turkey could be
extremely radical," he says, adding that he is in no way advocating
more armor for the river. "For one thing, it's ugly. But we have so
much of it now that we cannot just put a halt to it. If one side of
the river is confined, the other side is going to pay a price, and
the moratorium says that we just write that side off. I don't think
that we can do that, in all fairness."
people believe the task force is a step in the right direction. "It
is a great idea," says Dennis Glick of the Greater Yellowstone
Coalition. "I wish it represented a larger sector of the public. If
you run through the list of members, you find mostly people with an
economic interest in the river. There are realtors, landowners, the
owners of the spring creeks where people pay to fish. There is only
one person from an environmental group, only one fisheries guy."
Glick also worries that after years of study,
the Task Force will confirm what officials like Rob Hazlewood
already suspect - that confining the Yellowstone River is
destroying it as a functioning natural ecosystem, but that the
powerful economic interests will cause the riprapping to
Hazlewood of the Fish and Wildlife
Service says the river must be protected from short-sighted
engineering solutions now, to avoid the necessity for restoration
"At some point we have to understand that
these things ruin rivers," Hazlewood says. "We would just like to
see the river continue to do what it has done so well for thousands
Hal Herring writes
from Corvallis, Montana.
can contact ...
* Rob Hazlewood, U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, 406/449-5225 ext. 211;
Tohtz, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks,
* Allan Steinle, Army Corps of
Engineers, Helena, Mont., 406/441-1375.