GUEST COLUMN: Climate change threatens the economic engine of our rivers

On Aug. 19, Montana’s Fish, Wildlife, and Parks took the unprecedented step of closing 183 miles of the Yellowstone River to all forms of recreation. FWP’s decision came in response to a parasitic and highly contagious fish kill largely centered in the Paradise Valley south of Livingston.

Guest Column


While it looks likely that the trout will not be as severely affected as their native cousins, the Rocky Mountain Whitefish, it’s concerning that the parasite thrives in low, warm water. This summer’s long, sustained period of arid heat has created the perfect conditions for this disease to proliferate and damage one of Montana’s most popular rivers. This parasite is the clearest example yet of the increasing effects of climate change that threaten the Yellowstone’s health and its economic engine. 

Whether it is the proliferative kidney disease parasite killing the Whitefish or the upstream migration of smallmouth bass, the warming of our rivers is impacting all of us. At one point this summer, every major river in southwestern Montana had fishing restrictions due to high water temperatures and low water flows.

It is very difficult to overstate the economic importance of the Yellowstone River to Montanans. Whether a rancher, a farmer, a fishing guide, or a hotel owner, we all depend upon the Yellowstone and have built a vibrant economy that depends upon its environmental health. Our company has had to cancel trips, delay hiring shuttle drivers, stop eating at local restaurants, and stop buying groceries for our customers’ trips.

As Gov. Bullock knows, Montanans are most effective at solving problems when we work together. Climate change is real, and it is a problem facing all Montanans. And now it is affecting Montana’s $6 billion outdoor economy and the 64,000 jobs it supports.

Montana’s agricultural community did not cause this fish kill. Around Livingston, family ranchers with water rights dating back to 1882 do not have enough water to turn on their irrigation equipment. I would urge sportsmen and women to look to family farmers and ranchers as partners, not adversaries, in solving this crisis.

This fall, when politicians are debating the virtues of Montana’s recreational opportunities and economy, I urge Montanans to ask about climate change. Ask them why there are now smallmouth bass all the way up to Livingston and why thousands of Rocky Mountain Whitefish are floating belly-up down the Yellowstone? 

It is our changing climate and, unless we act quickly, our ranching and tourism economy will suffer even greater losses in the future. It will take all of us — Republicans, Democrats and Independents to solve this problem. Future generations of Montanans are counting on all of us.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Dan Vermillion, of Livingston, is the chairman of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, and a Montana outfitter.