By Sean Forbes Big Sky Weekly Contributor
BIG SKY – The carnage was evident along the banks of the Gallatin River. And, even though Gallatin River Guides’ Pat Straub said it might be comparable to a hurricane in an estuary, like a skinned knee, it looks worse than it is.
What started with the break up of an ice jam in December 2012 – probably somewhere above Cinnamon Creek – which unleashed a torrent of water pushing broken ice, muddy waves, full-sized down trees and other debris down stream, resulted in the deaths of an unfathomable number of the river’s fish.
“I was out fishing that day,” said Rainbow Ranch Lodge bartender Matt Meyer. “I was driving back up to Rainbow and noticed several people taking photographs right at the Conoco there [at the turn to Big Sky]. I thought there was a moose sighting or something when I looked at the river, and sure enough there’s this massive mudslide going by. Which was pretty impressive.”
While eagles and other predators have since scavenged on the abundant food source, some people view the dead fish as a poignant reminder of the fragility of the river’s wildlife. Others have been left wondering if there’s something to be done.
“In the big picture that’s part of life in the Gallatin,” said Travis Horton, fisheries manager for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 3. “It’s a rough place to live.”
But, as Straub noted, the Gallatin is remarkable.
“There’s no question that there were fish killed,” he said. “In the short term there were negative effects, because on trips our guides saw dead fish … It was a couple here and there, (and) a couple here and there adds up.”
“We probably had a dozen [guided] trips in 8 to 10 days after the fish kill and they all reported better fishing than they had in the summer.”
With the National Weather Service describing Montana as having the highest number of reported ice jams in the lower 48 states, perhaps that success shouldn’t be so surprising.
“These ice jams are kind of a regular feature,” said FWP Region 3 fisheries biologist Mike Vaughn. “There were certainly fish killed from this one this winter, but I don’t expect any long-term consequences to the fish populations up there. When we’re talking thousands of fish per mile, we’ve got a few to lose.”
Most wild trout streams have an annual mortality rate of around 33 percent, Vaughn said. So from Jan. 1 to Jan. 1 of an average year, a third of the individual fish inhabiting the river will not be there the next year.
“That means there’s a lot of replacement going on and a lot of growth,” Vaughn said.
And it’s all part of the natural cycle.
“Whatever negative effects that caused, the Gallatin will rebound,” Straub said. “And will be probably better.”
Missed the ice break? Visit YouTube and watch Jonathan Patten’s video, “Gallatin Tsunami1.”