State, locals talk response to Yellowstone fish kill

State, locals talk response to Yellowstone fish kill

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle
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LIVINGSTON — When a bunch of fish turned up dead in the Yellowstone River late last summer and the state shut off all river use for a time, locals felt the pain. Now, as they look toward another summer with the possibility of another die-off, they’re talking about how the state can deal with it better next time.

About 50 people gathered at the Park County Fairgrounds here Wednesday night to hear from a panel of local business owners, an economist, state officials and Montana’s Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney about the long month they had last year when tens of thousands of mountain whitefish died.

“It was a reminder of how fragile our ecosystem really is,” Cooney said.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks started hearing about dead whitefish in the Yellowstone River in mid-August. They learned the fish were suffering from a microscopic parasite that causes proliferative kidney disease, a condition that can be devastating to trout and whitefish. In response, the state banned all recreation on 183 miles of the river and its tributaries, a move it said was meant to give the remaining fish a chance to survive.

The closure was lifted piece by piece over the next month, but it dealt a significant blow to the local economy. Jeremy Sage, an economist with the University of Montana’s Institute on Recreation and Tourism, estimated that Park County lost about $500,000 in non-resident spending.

Leslie Feigel, the executive director of the Livingston Area Chamber of Commerce, said that impact was certainly felt by fishing guides and raft companies, but it was also felt by restaurants, hotels and other local businesses.

“It impacts everyone. Even our local plumbers,” she said.

Looking forward, Feigel and others here last night said the state needed to communicate better with locals. Some said that the closure totally blindsided them, and others said they were frustrated that the state couldn’t offer a clearer blueprint for how the river would reopen and when, something that may have helped them plan for their business.

Several at the meeting said they felt the closure was the right thing to do for the river at the time, but they wondered what they could expect in the future. The parasite is still in the river, and there’s a chance more fish will turn up dead this summer.

Travis Horton, FWP’s regional fisheries manager, said the number and location of dead fish will help FWP decide whether any sort of closure is needed. He added that now that they have experience with a major die-off, their decisions might be different.

“It’s not necessarily going to be the same extent or duration as last year,” he said.