All fish need water. One doesn’t have to be a fisheries biologist to be aware of this simple point—in fact, any six year old would say so. The recent outbreak of Proliferative Kidney Disease (PKD), while tragic and devastating, has cast a bright and perhaps unwanted spotlight on the deplorable condition of all of Montana’s rivers.
As a Montanan that makes my living guiding anglers on our state’s waterways, we cannot continue to ignore the harmful effect one-sided water policies have on our fisheries. The impact of the Yellowstone River closure, for instance, can be measured in dead fish, diminished flow, and an unfathomable loss of fishing-related revenue. As the flow decreases, the numbers of dead fish and lost dollars simultaneously and directly increase. No matter how measured, calculated or quantified, I strongly believe the core root of the problem is Western Water Law.
PKD is killing fish, but low flows and high water temperatures are making it quite a bit easier. Governor Bullock has stated that outdoor recreation supports more than 64,000 jobs and brings close to $6 billion to Montana annually. Thus, isn’t it time for outdoor recreation to garner a seat at the water table? I challenge the efficacy of any law that allows for the repeated and constant degradation of Montana’s iconic trout fisheries.
Rivers such as the Big Hole, Yellowstone, Jefferson, Madison, East Gallatin, and Gallatin—arguably some of the finest trout fisheries the world will ever know—are continually dewatered and abused in the name of Western Water Law. After the Yellowstone River closure, visiting anglers have little in the way of fishing options. With the subsequent closures of, and restrictions on, the remaining fisheries, there simply are not many places to fish, which is ironic due to the inordinate number of world class fisheries in SW Montana.
Regrettably, some of these rivers (Big Hole, Jefferson, and Lower Gallatin), are exploited and dewatered so often that closures and fishing restrictions have sadly become the norm. What kind of law allows for the degradation of public resources to the point that we can no longer utilize these resources? Moreover, how is this strategy healthy and sustainable for the future? How long after the rivers run dry will it take for the adjoining towns to follow suit?
Livingston, Melrose, Twin Bridges, and Ennis-let’s not forget these towns exist primarily because of the rivers and the recreation they provide. Fish and Wildlife (FWP) Director Jeff Hagener said the closure of the Yellowstone “will have a significant impact on many people”, but is necessary “to protect this public resource for present and future generations.”
The first step in protecting this PUBLIC resource, in my opinion, is to ensure a suitable amount of water flows within its reaches. FWP has stated the effect of the disease “is exacerbated by other stressors like near record flows, consistent high temperatures, and the disturbance caused by recreational activities.” So what is FWP’s solution? Close the river to recreation, even though they claim it is but one of the contributing factors. Bewilderingly, access to the once mighty Yellowstone for purposes of irrigation was left unabated.
If we are going to close the river to reduce the stressors, shouldn’t we at least address ALL of the stressors? Eliminating one of the contributing factors is simply not enough. While I am not “anti-agriculture” I am “pro-trout”, and we need to find a middle ground that works for all.
The time for change is upon us, and I challenge everyone who cares about the fisheries of Montana to stand up and speak out. We can no longer remain silent, accepting poor water conditions and allowing these legendary fisheries to be compromised.
I ask all outdoor recreationists to contact their state and federal representatives in hopes of finding an amicable solution that works for all. The water in our area is finite, and we should all do that we can to voluntarily minimize our usage, and maximize our efficiency for once it is gone, it is gone forever. Greg Bricker Owner / Operator Freestone Fly Fishing Outfitters.