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Montana Wildlife Officials Ask For Patience With Yellowstone Fish Kill Investigation

Dead mountain whitefish in the Yellowstone River on August 24, 2016. Officials estimated that tens of thousands of fish have been killed by a rare parasite.
Eric Whitney
Dead mountain whitefish in the Yellowstone River on August 24, 2016. Officials estimated that tens of thousands of fish have been killed by a rare parasite.

About 400 people came to the public meeting in Livingston last night about the fish kill that’s caused the closure of a 180-mile section of the Yellowstone River and hundreds of miles of its tributaries, from the boundary of Yellowstone National Park downstream to Laurel.

"The magnitude of this kill is unlike anything our fish health specialists have seen before in Montana."

That’s Andrea Jones, information and public education manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. FWP closed the river to all recreation on August 19, one week after hundreds of dead mountain whitefish started turning up on the banks of the Yellowstone, mostly between Livingston and the national park. So far no fish associated with the kill have been found inside the park.

"As to re-opening the river, we know that this decision has a tremendous impact on this community. As an agency, we have no desire to keep the river closed any longer than necessary. We are doing everything we can to get the information we need to make the right decisions considering the health of the river, and to make sure we're keeping in mind all of those affected by the closure."

Among the important things that FWP says it does know: The disease, called proliferative kidney disease, is caused by a parasite. It’s been known to appear in waters and fish in the U.S., Canada and Europe, but it’s never been seen in this magnitude in Montana.

FWP says it’s killed tens of thousands of mountain whitefish, but the agency has only collected a relative handful of dead trout species in the area hardest hit, which is between Livingston and Emigrant. In that stretch the number of dead whitefish FWP has counted on one bank has grown from 350 a week ago to nearly 1,900 last Friday. They’ll know later this week if the death count continues to rise there.

The number of dead whitefish observed both upstream of Emigrant and downstream of Livingston has been much smaller. The farthest downstream that dead fish apparently killed by the parasite have been seen is west of Big Timber.

But biologists don’t know whether the parasite is present in the Yellowstone’s tributaries, which branch out over hundreds of miles and include the Shields, Stillwater and Boulder rivers.

"Eileen Ryce, I’m the hatchery bureau chief with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and I supervise the fish health program."

Ryce answered a lot of questions from the public about the parasite last night from the public. FWP has closed all of the Yellowstone’s tributaries upstream from Laurel to all recreation, too, until biologists learn more.

"We have gathered samples from the tributaries. Those have been prioritized, and we’re waiting on results."

I asked Ryce when they expected to have results.

"We should have the first batch of results coming in on Friday."

The kinds of results biologists and the public want are complicated to get, and take time, even with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s laboratory in Bozeman.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is overseen in part by a board of commissioners appointed by the governor. Dan Vermillion chairs the commission. I asked him if the state wildlife agency has the resources it needs to respond to this disease crisis on the Yellowstone.

"You know, it's interesting that when you have an oil spill, there's a much more robust, multi-agency response. And the federal government gets involved right away. In this sort of a disease event, the only agency that seems to have the responsibility is Fish, Wildlife and Parks. So, I don't know that we do. Could we use more funding for these sort of issues? You bet."

Vermillion says he’s been getting a lot of phone calls from people concerned about the river closure, many of them fishing guides and outfitters on the Yellowstone like himself. He says there’s broad support from them for how FWP is responding to the disease outbreak.

There wasn’t a lot of dissent at last night’s meeting. But a couple of people who rely on tourism did speak up. Tina Marshall was one of them. She works at the 7 Point Ranch near Emigrant, which she describes as a luxury guest ranch.

"The river closing is a really, probably very proactive and positive move for FWP. But what we're seeing is a profound lack of interagency interaction. We're not seeing any involvement on the part of the humans. To the hundreds of small businesses who are losing their shirts, what is this community to do when a great majority of their employed adults lose their jobs a month and a half to two months ahead of the end of the season? Where is the federal and state aid?"

Fish, Wildlife and Parks staff said they’re working hard to re-open the river as quickly as possible, but that they have no authority to call in extra help for local businesses that need it. The only federal official to speak at the meeting was Senator Steve Daines.

Senator Steve Daines was among those at the FWP meeting in Livingston Wednesday night.
Credit Eric Whitney
Senator Steve Daines was among those at the FWP meeting in Livingston Wednesday night.

"This is very personal for me. I know it's very personal for many in this room," said Daines.

The Bozeman Republican only spoke briefly, and offered no specific help or advice for local businesses or workers being impacted by the river closure.

"So thanks for coming out tonight, and know that our office is staying very close to the situation. We want to make sure we get this resolved, find out what caused it and how to prevent it from happening again. Thanks for coming out tonight."

Fish, Wildlife and Parks staff say they’re holding formal meetings to re-assess the outbreak every three days. They say the river is at near historic lows in terms of water level, meaning it’s warm and unhealthy for fish even without the parasite. Biologists say cooler temperatures coming this fall, and higher flows in the spring should reduce the parasite’s impacts. They also say fish that survive will be kind of “vaccinated” against it in the future. But no one last night predicted when this particular parasite outbreak might no longer be a problem in the Yellowstone River.

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