River Closure Messaging Masked Reality: Trout Are Many and Healthy
BY JOSHUA ROBERSON
Last August 19, Governor Steve Bullock closed 183 miles of the Yellowstone River—from Yellowstone National Park’s northern boundary at Gardiner to the Highway 212 bridge in Laurel.
The reason for this emergency action: an invasive fish-killing parasite called PKX (Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae) that causes prolifer-ated kidney disease (PKD) in salmonids. Under certain conditions, PKD can wipe out large portions of fish populations.
However, only eight trout were actually observed deceased by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks in their documentation of last summer’s fishkill. FWP lifted the closure, incrementally at first, then totally on September 23.
Gov. Bullock and FWP’s response to the invasive parasite, in the form of the extensive river closure, made national headlines, with outlets such as NPR and The New York Times reporting that the Yellowstone had been shut down.
In river-centric communities like Livingston, fly fishing and related tourist dollars create an economic base upon which locals depend for their livelihoods. According to some, inaccurate reporting and irresponsible messaging by FWP failed to emphasize that trout in the Yellowstone remained largely unscathed by the fishkill, giving the general public, and anglers everywhere, undue cause for concern. Fishkills, more over, especially of whitefish, media accounts and FWP failed to mention, are historical events on the Yellowstone, though not often with the numbers of dead whitefish fish counted last summer, which totalled about four thousand.
In February, FWP announced that the parasite had also turned up in many other rivers around the state. According to wildlife officials, the Big Hole, Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin, East Gallatin, Lower Shields, Boulder, Stillwater, and Bighorn have all tested positive for the parasite. The Yellowstone River however is the only river where there has been documentation of diseased fish.
In this same press release, FWP Fisheries Chief Eileen Ryce states that, “The presence of the parasite alone doesn’t mean disease.”
According to Scott Opitz, a Fisheries-Management Biologist for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, fish samples collected from the area were sent to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Fish health lab in Bozeman for analysis.
Once they arrived at the lab, the fish were analyzed and genetic testing was performed in order to diagnose their disease.
“While the fish predominantly affected were whitefish, extremely low numbers of mortalities were noted in rainbow and brown trout, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, longnose suckers and longnose dace,” said Opitz.
“We visually observed four rainbows, two Yellowstone cutthroat trout, one brown trout and one rainbow/Yellowstone cross that were victims of the parasite. Monitoring of both whitefish and trout populations is planned for this spring in order to fully evaluate the impact of the disease on fish populations in the Yellowstone River”
Paul Weamer manages the Sweetwater Fly Shop in Livingston. He agrees with FWP’s assertion that the trout were virtually unaffected and blames the widespread confusion on “irresponsible reporting” rather than FWP or Gov. Bullock.
“There were actually some reporters that even misquoted the owner of the shop here, and a lot of times you just see they wrote “thousands of dead fish”, and I think people confuse all that stuff, and they aren’t really sure that it wasn’t trout.” Weamer said.
The Associated Press, in fact, led one story last season with a false statement about “tens of thousands” of dead fish in the Yellowstone.
Weamer says he’s fished the Yellowstone frequently in the last couple weeks, including around Mallards Rest and Loch Leven where whitefish were hit the hardest.
“I’ve been catching a bunch of trout, and they are all fat and healthy and everything looks good.”
Weamer reiterated his belief that FWP or Gov. Bullock should bear no responsibility in the circulation of inaccurate facts and figures surrounding last year’s parasite outbreak.
“I really don’t think FWP or Governor Bullock bear any responsi-bility in the implied notion that the trout were drastically affected. I think there was more shoddy journalism than anything else that caused a problem.”
“Even all the stories that said there was ten thousand dead whitefish, well not one of those reports mentioned how many whitefish we have in the Yellowstone.”
“It was a scary situation that was unprecedented. I think the governor and FWP did the best they could with the information they had at the time.”
The Governor and FWP, however, in the many press releases and statements they made, never led with, emphasized, or prominently featured the fact that very few trout had been killed by the parasite, letting the misconception stand, even after the state’s river closure had become a national story.
Phone conversations between the Montana Pioneer, FWP, and the Governor’s office, revealed that no public relations effort was being taken to counter the nationwide impression, due to the 183-mile river closure, that trout were being wiped out in the river. Spokesperson Andrea Jones suggested to the Pioneer, in fact, that the river closure and resulting “quieter” and “calmer” atmosphere might be a benefit.
Adverse conditions like low water, which increases concentration of the parasite, and high temperatures, created conditions amounting to a kind of perfect storm, according to biologists, that helped the fishkill happen. Yellowstone Park Superintendent Dan Wenk told the Pioneer, for example, that in the higher, colder waters of Yellowstone National Park, upriver from last year’s fishkill, no fishkills at all had occurred—”zero,” according to Wenk.
This year, the snowpack differs drastically from 2016. As of March, it remains above average across the state except in the Smith, Judith, and Musselshell drainage where it remains slightly below average.
Weamer and wildlife officials remain hopeful this will have a positive effect on the Yellowstone and other affected rivers.
“I think this season will be great. We have…a great snowpack right now. So, we will see how that plays out into the rest of the spring here and into the summer,” he said. “We had an awful lot of whitefish before so maybe thinning them out a little bit isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to us either. So I’m very optimistic about this season.”
It’s still too early to know if the implied impressions of the parasite kill will have any effect on businesses like Sweetwater fly shop, but Weamer says his current trip numbers look similar to previous years.
According to Opitz, “the low water flow and warmer water temperature conditions, like those encountered last season, have been shown to contribute to an outbreak of the disease and trigger mortality in salmonids—which includes trout and whitefish.”
The hope among anglers and FWP officials remains that the improved snowpack in the mountains will deter the parasites spread as the dog days of summer arrive.
“At this point, it’s hard to tell what this year will bring,” said Scott Opitz. “A good water year and better water temperatures won’t guarantee we won’t see some form of fish kill again this year, but better environmental conditions should reduce any impacts that we might see”.
Recent research efforts indicate that fish that were exposed to the parasite last summer should develop a certain level of resistance to the disease, ostensibly lowering the risk of another high profile fish kill.
But because PKX is believed to be new in the Yellowstone and surrounding areas, officials like Opitz cannot say with certainty what the future implications will be.
FWP maintains that the best way to prevent the spread of these aquatic parasites is to employ the Clean, Drain, Dry protocol on all boats, equipment, and gear.
David Lewis contributed to this report.