After thousands of fish die in the Yellowstone River, officials lift boating bans

Stretches of the river remain closed as officials scramble to save the iconic fishery.

 

On Thursday, state officials lifted a ban on water-based recreation on sections of Montana’s famed Yellowstone River, after a parasite killed thousands of fish last month. But the lifting comes too late for rafting companies at its headwaters.

The Aug. 19 emergency closure of a 183-mile stretch of the Yellowstone River – from Yellowstone National Park to Laurel, Montana – came after more than 4,000 dead mountain whitefish were found. Tissue samples showed they suffered from acute Proliferative Kidney Disease, caused by a microscopic parasite. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks estimates the total number of dead fish could be 10,000.

Fish killed by a parasite in Montana's Yellowstone River.
Montana Fish, Game and Parks

Rob Trotter, owner of the Yellowstone Raft Company in Gardiner, said he and most of the other rafting companies closed for the year earlier this week, after their typical four-month season was cut by a quarter. He estimates that the Yellowstone River closure cost rafting companies about $100,000 worth of lost business.

“It’s a big hit to us, not to mention to the restaurants, hotels, shuttle services and gas stations in Gardiner,” Trotter said.

Matson Rogers, owner of Anglers West, said they lost some fly-fishing business with the closures, but he wasn’t as hard hit as the rafting companies. Instead, he was able to direct some clients to other nearby rivers.

Lifting the restrictions doesn’t mean that fish – mainly mountain whitefish - aren’t still dying from PKD. Near-record low water flows, summer high temperatures and recreation activities stressed the fish, which allowed the disease to strike hard and fast. Experts say the disease can’t be eradicated from waters, and it may kill fish next year when conditions are ripe. However, based on research from Idaho, where PKD also was detected, the fish appear to build immunity over time.

Montana FWP reports that the number of dead fish found in the Yellowstone River appears to be decreasing. The state agency closed the river to reduce stress on the fish and possibly allow them to fight off infections, and to lower the possibility that PKD could be spread to other watersheds in Montana. They're also concerned that the disease could affect Yellowstone cutthroat and rainbow trout.

The Yellowstone is experiencing close to historic low flows, with temperatures hovering about 20 degrees above what's ideal for whitefish and trout. Sam Sheppard, region 3 supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said that's similar to what they've recorded in the past few years and is becoming the “new normal," a trend he finds worrisome. David Brooks with Montana Trout Unlimited says the organization plans to keep an eye on the potential threat climate change poses to cold water fisheries in the West.

The re-opening carries caveats, including a ban on fishing on 73 miles, from the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Montana, through the Paradise Valley to east of Livingston, Montana. However, rafters can float the upper 21 miles of that stretch. The Shields River, which flows into the Yellowstone River, also remains closed.

At a meeting Thursday, Montana FWP Director Jeff Hagener said that cooler water temperatures are lessening the fishery’s strain in time for the Labor Day holiday weekend, although he stressed that the economics of the closure wasn’t a factor in deciding to reopen the river. “We found that the environmental conditions that warranted the emergency closure have improved,” Hagener said.

Proliferative Kidney Disease previously has been documented in two isolated locations in central Montana during the past 20 years, and recent outbreaks occurred in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Officials aren’t sure how it moved to the Yellowstone River, but theorize it may have been carried in via infected boats or waders.

Eve Byron is a longtime journalist based in Helena, Montana. She tweets @evefolomoney.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!