By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BOZEMAN – After a parasitic outbreak led Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to close the Yellowstone River late last summer, tourism and recreation business owners are cautious, but say it’s business as usual.
Beginning last year on Aug. 19, nearly 183 miles of the Yellowstone River were closed to all water activities, including fishing, wading, floating and boating, in response to the death of thousands of mountain whitefish and some rainbow and Yellowstone cutthroat trout affected by the parasite known as Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae, which causes proliferative kidney disease. FWP lifted most of the closure two weeks later, but the stretch south of Livingston with the highest whitefish mortality rate was closed for a full month.
This short-term closure is reported by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana to have resulted in an economic loss to Park County businesses of between $360,000 and $524,000.
“It was like somebody turned off a faucet,” said Sarah Ondrus, who owns Gardiner-based Paradise Adventure Company with her husband. With two locations, one in Gardiner and one at Chico Hot Springs, Ondrus and her husband, Patrik, take groups on rafting adventures on the Yellowstone River nearly every day during the peak season in the summer.
“You could see the impacts [of the closure] the next day,” Ondrus said, estimating that between all four of Gardiner’s rafting companies, about 500 people visit the town specifically to raft each day. “We lost our jobs within one phone call,” she said. Faced with the indefinite closure, Ondrus said she had to let some employees go and cancel the remaining trips for the summer.
“We really took a hit,” said Ondrus, whose company operates only on the Yellowstone. “If [FWP] shuts it down, there’s nothing we can do.”
While Ondrus’s rafting company relies solely on the Yellowstone, other recreation businesses may be able to come up with backup plans if issues arise in the future, said Leslie Feigel, executive director of the Livingston Area Chamber of Commerce. “Not everything is around the Yellowstone.”
Feigel noted the number of hiking and horseback riding opportunities in Paradise Valley, as well as additional fishing on the spring creeks and mountain lakes. “The river is only part of it,” she said.
“It’s really always a threat for many rivers to close,” said Eric Adams, owner of Montana Fly Fishing Guides in Livingston. Aware of the possibility of a closure, Adams and many other fly-fishing outfitters keep permits to fish other bodies of water. For Adams, this includes the Paradise Valley spring creeks, the Boulder River and several locations in the Stillwater area.
Brian McGeehan, owner of Montana Angler in Bozeman, is also permitted on a number of rivers, including the Gallatin and Madison. Additionally, he takes float trips on the Yellowstone River, operating out of the Yellowstone Valley Lodge in Paradise Valley.
According to the University of Montana report, the Upper Yellowstone River is the most fished river drainage in Montana and accounts for nearly 11 percent of all angler days in the state.
“We haven’t really seen any difference in terms of the trout fishery,” McGeehan said, after taking several clients on the Yellowstone this spring. “We haven’t been shy about booking people [for fishing the Yellowstone].”
Adams and his guides are also already taking clients on the Yellowstone River this year. “At this point the trout we’re catching look healthy,” Adams said. “In terms of our bookings, we’re doing really well.”
Surprised, Adams said most clients aren’t asking about the impacts of last year’s closure.
Ondrus said rafting clients aren’t asking about the condition of the river, either. “That’s why I think what happened last year won’t affect us,” Ondrus said, already seeing bookings through the summer. “As far as right now, it’s business as usual.”
“I hate when our river’s sick,” Ondrus said. “We just keep our fingers crossed and hope we’ll have a healthy river and a good summer.”
This April, FWP conducted an extensive survey of the Yellowstone River in order to monitor the fish population. While still analyzing the results, Region 3 Fisheries Biologist Scott Opitz said there were lower numbers of whitefish near the Mallard’s Rest Fishing Access Site, which was in the middle of the highest mortality zone last year.
However, Opitz said initial analysis shows “there may have been an impact but nothing that raises immediate concern … We see variation [in population numbers] annually.”
Opitz said FWP will have a complete report from the population study toward the end of this month and further summer monitoring will be based on that data. For now, the Yellowstone River is open to all recreation activity, as it would be if the parasite outbreak had not occurred.
“There is some concern for the potential to have another outbreak,” Opitz said. “We’re not at a point where we have the ability to predict when or where that might occur.”
Opitz did note that the Upper Yellowstone Basin had above average snowpack this winter and has seen a high runoff this spring, which could be a benefit to the health of the river and fish, as the parasite’s impact appears to be exacerbated by low river flows and high water temperatures.
In light of possible future outbreaks, and to encourage awareness and dialogue among various sectors concerned with the Yellowstone River, Montana Aquatic Resources Services held a Yellowstone River Symposium on April 27 and 28 in Livingston. Executive director of the state-wide nonprofit Wendy Weaver said individuals from a variety of backgrounds attended the event, including land owners, conservationists, farmers and fishermen, and they discussed potential solutions to improve the overall health of the Yellowstone River. A summary of the symposium is expected toward the end of May.