I drove out to Carter’s Bridge Fishing Access Site last weekend knowing what I would see, but not realizing what I would find. I knew it would be empty since Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks (FWP) closed 183 miles of the Yellowstone River, from Gardiner to Laurel, as well as all of its tributaries, like the Boulder and Stillwater Rivers, to all recreational activity: from swimming, to floating, to fishing. Finding myself standing next to the river at one of the busiest access spots on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of August and be the only person there was spooky. I was happy to have my young son and my dog with me because they kept my spirits up the way those who live in the moment always do.
The FWP closed the river the day before on August 18 after discovering the reason thousands of whitefish were dying every day for the previous week was due to the presence of a little known parasite, Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae, that causes Proliferative Kidney Disease (PKD). This is an extremely lethal parasitic disease known to affect salmonids. It has only been seen twice before in Montana, in two isolated locations, neither of which were in the Yellowstone watershed. Presently the fish populations in the Yellowstone are showing little resistance to this disease. The whitefish are the canaries in the coal mine, an indicator species, and now this native fish is bearing the brunt of what will most likely be seen as one of the worst ecological disasters to befall the Yellowstone River. Let’s pray the trout prove more resilient. Regardless, PKD is now a resident and we will have to learn to live with its presence in the river from here on out.
As I watched my son skip rocks I had to remind myself that the Yellowstone is the iconic undammed river, unpredictable and beguiling in its nature for a reason. It supports a resilient ecosystem with a genetically diverse population of fish that can adapt to changes because the river has changed. I tried to illustrate these thoughts by telling my son how the channel was different at Carter’s when I was young. It flowed deep on the east side where we were standing, and many hot summer afternoons of my youth were spent jumping from the bridge into the deep pool below, now filled with gravel as the channel has since reconfigured itself. He looked up at me and asked if I told my mother that I jumped off the bridge? I laughed and realized my story only proved that looking to the past isn’t necessarily the best place to look right now.
I honestly believe the Yellowstone River can and will bear the trauma that the outbreak of PKD will inflict upon it. But the river will need all the help it can get. The fact that the Carter’s access site was empty is a testament to how seriously everyone is taking this new reality, and how much we all love and care for this river. But our friends and neighbors whose livelihoods depend on the river are losing business left and right. Their sacrifice is immense, and the economic repercussions of the closure will ripple throughout not only Park County, but all the communities downstream.
And now? Now we’re going to need answers, we’re going to need ideas and we’re all going to need to work together to help the Yellowstone River recover. It has given us so much, and we’ve done our best to take care of her, but now we all need to come together and fight like hell to ensure the Yellowstone River remains resilient. That, and we all need to start cleaning our boats and gear.
I’ve talked to people who are anxious, angry, confused, you name it, but all are deeply concerned. I’ve also heard some pretty far out theories about the causes of the whitefish fish die off. Now is also not the time to speculate wildly. The FWP is gathering evidence and conducting a thorough scientific study on the parasite, of which very little is known, but this much is certain, near record low flows and a long hot summer are largely why PKD is wreaking havoc on the Yellowstone in such an unprecedented manner. So while we wait on additional lab results and studies, which is hard at a time like this, let’s take care of each other and our community, and let’s take care of the river. It’s our responsibility.
We here at PCEC will do everything we can to continue to keep on top of this situation and make every effort get the right information out to the community and help all who are working on this in every way we can. If you have any questions please contact us, if we don’t have the answer there’s a good chance we’ll know who does.
Here are some links to the latest (as of August 21) information on the situation: