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Yellowstone River Fish Kill Challenges Montana's Image Of Unspoiled Nature

The recent fish kill in the Yellowstone River is painting a picture of Montana in national headlines that’s a little different than what the state’s office of tourism advertises in promotional videos.
The recent fish kill in the Yellowstone River is painting a picture of Montana in national headlines that’s a little different than what the state’s office of tourism advertises in promotional videos.";s:

The recent fish kill in the Yellowstone River is painting a picture of Montana in national headlines that’s a little different than what the state’s office of tourism advertises in" target="_blank">this promotional video.

"Where the mountains thrust skyward and giant pyramids of granite and the rivers run as free and clear as your spirit. A place where you can hear the sound of silence."

Last Friday, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks closed the Yellowstone River to all recreational activity, effectively canceling many rafting and fly fishing trips.

Wildlife officials say there is no known antidote or vaccine to cure or prevent the spread of the parasite and the disease is made worse by record low water flows and consistent high temperatures. Officials say they don’t know when the river could reopen.

Days after the closure of 180 miles of the river, local tourism officials posited a picture on Facebook that reads "Keep Calm and Paddle On."

The post on the Livingston Area Chamber of Commerce page suggests visitors take shuttles to a lake near town if they want a water experience.

Leslie Feigel with Livingston’s chamber of commerce says when one section of the tourism industry takes a hit, it's important to remind visitors of other options.

"Livingston, Montana, Montana period, has so much more to offer than just the river play. We have a lot that come here that have nothing to do with the river, period, other than it looking beautiful."

Feigel says if the river closure continues, her office may shift their marketing resources away fly fishing advertising to the other relational actives.

"Between the mountain climbing and the hiking, and everything else we offer here year around, there still a ton of stuff to keep you busy."

Feigel doesn’t doubt that Livingston and the surrounding area just north of Yellowstone National Park can keep visitors entertained, but what isn’t certain is the financial impact of not having the river as source of revenue. Nearly a quarter of all jobs in Park County are related to tourism.

Daniel Iverson with the state’s office of tourism doesn’t expect the recent news to hurt the long term tourism potential. In 2009, the state developed a brand to bring some cohesiveness to the state’s tourism industry. Iverson says the brand is built on three pillars:

"Spectacular unspoiled nature. Vibrant and charming small towns. And breathtaking experiences by day and relaxing hospitality at night."

Iverson says that while the Yellowstone River area isn’t getting a lot of great press right now, the state’s brand is still strong because of a history of positive stories.

"So this situation is definitely new. It's not something that is happening on a regular basis. We are  accustomed to unpredictability in the spectacular nature that Montana has to offer. And sometimes that is as simple as it will end up raining or snowing unexpectedly in Glacier during someone's vacation. A lot of times it's wildfires during the summer. Certainly, sometimes in the national press those types of events get exaggerated. They’ll say that all of Montana is on fire. And then our job is to come in and say no, it's really not. It's a big, big state and there is still plenty to do. That is what we try to do in these kinds of situations."

That’s a fair assessment, says Justin Angle. He’s a professor at the University of Montana focusing on marketing and  branding.

"I think there is not really any evidence to suggest that one instance of fish kill is going to undermine the great brand that the state of Montana has. The one thing, though, is that you don’t want to ignore these sorts of things. Why are they happening? Because if they happen over and over again, then those old strongly-held positive associations that we talked about start to get undermined by this new information."

Wildlife officials are investigating the extent of the fish kill. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks says this is one of the most serious diseases to impact whitefish and trout and it has appeared in Montana twice before, but never to this extent.

Angle says Montana taking on the brand of a last best place in the West means some wildness is expected. Things are going to happen that no one can predict, and Angle says the brand should embrace that, with nuance, telling that story while keeping the positive associations of the landscape.

"I mean this notion of pristine natural ecosystem. A natural ecosystem is dynamic and it's living and changing and so, not sort of painting this picture of fixed natural resource that never changes. No, it is going to change. Some of that is good and some of that is bad. It is a system. So telling a story delicately, I think is important."

Wildlife officials, local business owners and town leaders are meeting Wednesday night in Livingston to talk about the short and long term impacts of the river closure. The meeting is at the Livingston Fairgrounds at 6:00 p.m. You can find a Yellowstone River fish kill fact sheet provided by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks here.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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