A veteran guide’s take on recent events. A Reality Check on the Yellowstone.
**This was originally published in a recent issue of Explore Big Sky
More than three weeks have passed since Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks closed nearly 200 miles of the Yellowstone River downstream of the Yellowstone Park boundary. In response to an invasive parasite, the agency made a tough call to restrict water-based recreation. It was a gutsy move, but it was the correct decision.
As a professional depending on Montana’s rivers and streams to feed my family, choosing to accept this decision did not come easily, but the long-term viability of healthy fisheries overruled any short-term gain. As a lifelong resident of Montana, I understand that rivers are the lifeblood of our communities. They provide recreation, irrigation, habitat for fish and mammals, hunting opportunities and more. They are our version of the local beach.
Over three weeks after the closure, the reason I still support the original decision to close the river is how swiftly the agency and its hardworking staff worked to reopen sections of the river to recreation. To date, anglers and recreationists now have ample access.
The staff at FWP deserves our gratitude for dedicating time and resources to learn more about the parasite, conducting real time river surveys, and educating the public during this unprecedented decision. For FWP, the easy way out would have been to keep the river closed well into the cooler fall season. But, thankfully for all river users, we now have plenty of the Yellowstone River to enjoy.
The reopening of recreation on the Yellowstone doesn’t excuse us from having some difficult discussions about stream flows. The issue of water management needs to be addressed as part of the response, and anglers, floaters, irrigators, municipalities, developers, and state and federal agencies all must sit at the table. A degree of shared sacrifice may be the solution to prevent this from being a regular occurrence. But solutions, and therefore the ability to plan for closures, cannot occur without effort from all interest groups.
FWP officials have stressed that low flows and high water temperatures were two factors that triggered this outbreak, so working together to keep more water in our rivers when they need it most is necessary. Groups like Blackfoot Challenge are already doing this on other major Montana rivers with great results.
What happened on the Yellowstone was not an overnight event. The precursors of very low late summer flows—high flows in late spring predicting an early runoff and anglers fishing salmon flies the third week of June—were there through the spring and summer. Late summer low flows were expected. All users, anglers included, should expect a level sacrifice when early signs point to extreme conditions.
As Montanans, our history of progressive management practices in river management and access runs deep. From the departure of hatchery to wild trout populations to our stream access law, our forward thinking is what sets us apart from other states. Managing our water resources for all user groups now to ensure our grandkids have the same Montana we currently enjoy will be our next great challenge.
Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana on the Fly“ and” Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky, he is co-director of the Montana Fishing Guide School, and co-owns a guide service on the Missouri River.