Group launched to monitor Yellowstone after ’16 fish kill
Joseph Bullington —
Thursday, August 16, 2018
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Yellowstone Ecological Research Center field technician Abby Schmeichel, left, holds a sample of water taken from the Yellowstone River while fellow technician Tatiana Tilley reads her the temperature, Thursday at Carter’s Bridge fishing access. (Enterprise photo by Nate Howard)

In mid-August, 2016, the Yellowstone River was running low and warm and was seeing heavy use, and then something disturbing happened: Dead fish started showing up, swirling belly-up in eddies and washed up along the banks — by the thousands.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks acted fast, and on Aug. 19 they closed the river from the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park at Gardiner to the Highway 212 bridge at Laurel to fishing, boating and all other water-based recreational activities.

“We were very affected by the fish kill,” said Rick Wollum, retail manager at Angler’s West fly shop in Emigrant and a member of Guides for Conservation.

FWP estimated the death toll in the tens of thousands — mostly mountain whitefish, but they noted that they had received reports of dead rainbow and cutthroat trout as well.

The culprit was a parasite that causes proliferative kidney disease in some fish species, and, though outbreaks were known to occur in other states, the disease had only been previously documented in two isolated locations in Montana in the past 20 years, according to FWP.

Near-historic low river flows that summer combined with high water temperatures and heavy use-pressure to increase fish mortality, said Travis Horton, a fisheries manager with FWP.

FWP also has another working theory. The parasite’s primary host is a sponge-like aquatic invertebrate called a Bryozoan, and, historically, Horton explained, heavy spring flows, known as “scour flows,” reduce the bryozoan population and the parasites with them. In 2016, low mountain snowpack and low spring runoffs resulted in a higher level of bryozoan — and likely the PKD parasite — in the water.

“In a free-stone system like that, when you get boulders and gravel rolling, it knocks ’em back a bit,” Horton said.

The year 2007 also saw low flows and a river closure, but not the massive parasite outbreak.

“That’s what’s kind of perplexing,” Horton said.

“The honest truth is we don’t know what caused the fish kill,” said Jeff Reed, who owns Reed Fly Farms in Paradise Valley.

When the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center decided that not enough information was being collected on the river, Wollum joined on as a river guide partner and Reed joined on as a landowner partner, in the hopes of heading off another fish kill or other ecological damage to the river.

YERC founder and chief scientist Rob Crabtree decided to relaunch a Montana State University and University of Montana research project known as RiverNET as a community-based river monitoring and science program.

“I thought it should be extended beyond the funding cycles,” Crabtree said.

He said YERC instigated the program but doesn’t want to take ownership of it.

“It’s a community science effort,” he said. “A truly collaborative, community-based monitoring program.”

The Yellowstone, he said, is seeing escalating use and is declining in both quantity and quality.

“We can get it right here in Paradise Valley and set a model for the world,” he said. “Seriously.”

The program partners with local volunteers and guides from two different fly fishing shops to collect water samples and data from 40 key locations on the Yellowstone and its tributaries — and they do it in a single day, and plan to do it every two weeks from spring until fall, for as many years as they can sustain it.

The information gathered includes levels of phosphorous, ammonia, nitrates and PH value, and the data is collected in a public database, accessible through www.upperyellowstone.org/rivernet, and available for use by ranchers, river guides and whoever else.

The goal is to establish baselines and bring transparency to the river.

“You can’t hide on a stream or a river,” said Crabtree. “You look upstream and downstream and you find the source” of a pollutant or contaminant.

The idea isn’t to point fingers, though, so much as to learn about the river and help stakeholders learn about their impacts on it. Crabtree said he wouldn’t post a reading from a landowners property without their permission. If the project found a dirty reading below someone’s property but not above, he said he would go to the landowner first and give them a chance to remedy it.

Crabtree, a scientist who has been conducting research in the Yellowstone area for 29 years, got interested in the power of technology to collect vast amounts of data and make it publicly available — fast.

He hopes eventually to have monitoring stations collecting and posting data in real time.

“We’re focused on the big tech companies that we are going to need to bring Teddy Roosevelt conservationism into the digital age,” he said.

The federal government and the state Department of Environmental Quality do water quality monitoring on the Yellowstone, but so far river monitoring has been “piecemeal and snapshot,” Crabtree said.

“We need sustained monitoring,” Crabtree said. “We’re flying blind without monitoring.”

Crabtree thinks public-private partnerships are the future of monitoring because they can provide the finances to keep a project going long-term, independent of budget cycles.

But that means that the group will likely have to monetize some of its data at some point. Crabtree said that their next goal is to use the gathered data to create predictive models for such things as flows and turbidity, and sell access on a fee or subscription basis.

Still, the goal, he said, is to work with as many local stakeholders as possible to try to make data about the river as transparent and open as possible.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Enterprise reporter Johnathan Hettinger contributed to this report.