The Big Fish Kill on the Yellowstone

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department has closed the Yellowstone River to all waterborne recreation in response to a growing epidemic that has killed thousands of fish. The culprit is proliferative kidney disease, which can cause up to 100 percent mortality.

The disease is exacerbated by low water flows and high temperatures.

Gov. Steve Bullock is quoted in the Missoulian (Aug. 19) as saying: “We must be guided by science. Our state cannot afford this infectious disease to spread to other streams and rivers and it’s my responsibility to do everything we can to stop this threat in its tracks and protect Montana jobs and livelihoods.”

Neither MDFWP nor the Governor are willing to name the major factor creating low flows or “do everything” to stop the disease. There is a sacred cow they are afraid to name.
Neither Montana FWP nor Bullock are willing to connect the dots. In naming low flows and high temperatures, they are ignoring the ultimate cause of low water and high temperatures – which throughout Montana and the rest of the West is livestock production.

Livestock trample the riparian areas along streams which are the sponges that hold and release water, especially late season flows. Throughout the West, especially on public lands, cattle grazing is the No. 1 cause of riparian damage.

And of course, all those green hay fields one sees along the Yellowstone River—well that’s the river spread over those fields. Throughout the West, those green patches of exotic, water-thirsty grasses are only possible by degrading our rivers through water withdrawals.
Irrigation is the cause of stream dewatering and the reason many stream segments fail to meet state water quality standards.

When fish are crowded together it increases competition for food and resting habitat and thus is a factor in stress.
Low flows also mean any pools of water heat faster, contributing to higher temperatures.

Furthermore, even if the water diverted from a stream or river is subsequently returned to the stream, it is typically much warmer, which is another factor in high temperatures.
But here’s the catch. The water in Montana rivers, as well as the rest of the West, does not belong to ranchers. It is owned by the citizens of the state. And any use, including the removal of water, is subject to citizen approval. A water “right” is really a water privilege. We, the people of Montana, allow ranchers to use our water for their private profit. But this is subject to our approval.
When the exercise of that privilege begins to infringe on the rights of the rest of us, then the government should step in and protect the rights of all citizens to clean, high-quality water.
The citizens of Montana could decide that keeping more water in the Yellowstone River is more important to the state’s fishery and recreational industries than producing more hay for cattle feed.
Indeed, it is a public trust obligation for the governor and state wildlife agencies to protect the citizen’s right to fish, recreation and high quality water.
I don’t expect that the governor or FWP will enforce its public trust responsibility. But citizens can force the government to protect their fundamental right to healthy environment by suing the state for its failure to protect the public trust.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy