Biologists, outfitters optimistic on fisheries as floodwaters recede | Montana Untamed

With floodwaters receding and the Yellowstone River reopening to recreation, officials are still assessing damage and urging caution about potential for new hazards.

Historic flooding ravaged areas along the Yellowstone and Stillwater rivers as well as Rock Creek near Red Lodge. Red Lodge, Gardiner, Livingston, Fromberg and other locales saw significant impacts, with more than 100 residents facing damage to homes and costly infrastructure needing repair. As that work gets underway, officials and locals are also looking at what the flooding will mean for the rivers and fisheries that attract visitors from around the world.

While not discounting the devastation of the flooding, Eileen Ryce, fisheries division administrator for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, said fisheries biologists are generally happy to see additional moisture.

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“We won’t know until we start getting (fish sampling) results, but we’re not anticipating anything too negative (on the fishery),” she said when asked how fish might have fared. “I actually think the positive impacts of the cooler weather and the moisture outweigh any potential negative impacts.”

Ryce also noted concern about declines in brown trout populations across southwest Montana, and said the moisture netting cooler temperatures and better streamflows this year could help. Biologists have pointed to low flows in particular as a likely culprit in the declines.

“With the temps going down and flows coming up, the fish are far less stressed and we expect to see better results from that,” she said.

Along with dozens of fishing access sites deluged by flooding – FWP is still assessing damage and installing temporary fixes such as port-a-potties – a rising Yellowstone River flooded FWP’s hatchery at Big Timber. The outdoor raceways were completely covered by river water, sweeping the state’s Yellowstone cutthroat trout brood stock downstream.

Montana’s hatchery at Big Timber flooded during widespread flooding recently, sweeping the brood stock of Yellowstone cutthroat trout downstream.


“All the outdoor raceways were completely underwater so there was nothing we could do,” Ryce said.

Most of the fish were 3-4 years old, and Ryce said it will take some time to rebuild the population. Before that can begin, crews will need to clean and decontaminate the site, which could take nine to 12 months due to strict protocols, she said, and an additional three to four years to get the brood stock back to where it was.

Ryce hopes the loss will not have any major impacts to cutthroat recovery projects, saying officials have reached out to other states with hatcheries such as Wyoming to source fish.

Area fishing outfitters said they usually don’t start targeting the Yellowstone this early in the year. Still, they have seen some cancellations as the flooding made national news and the national park shuttered its northern entrance.

“A lot of people that had Yellowstone Park stuff tied into their canceled plans,” said Logan Brown, who does client booking for Yellowstone Angler in Livingston. Their shop’s basement flooded last Tuesday, he said, but it has been able to stay open. Other clients reworked plans and he remains optimistic that openings will fill as summer progresses.

Yellowstone River fly-fishing

In this Sept. 9, 2004, file photo, two fly fishermen and an oarsman test their angling skills as they float down the Yellowstone River near the Pine Creek fishing access.

Garrett Cheen / The Livingston Enterprise via AP

Flooding made significant changes to many river stretches, and that will mean new hazards for floaters to navigate. The Yellowstone River reopened this week, but in Stillwater County emergency closures remain for the Stillwater River, West Rosebud Creek from Rosebud Isle Fishing Access Site to the confluence of Rosebud Creek, and Rosebud Creek to the confluence with the Stillwater.

“The conditions continue to be hazardous, and so we encourage people to exercise an abundance of caution when around the river,” FWP Director Hank Worsech said in a statement. “Our staff is working hard to get sites back open for the public.”

Brown and others are keeping an eye on the river as flows drop and the waters become fishable.

“It’s definitely a little concerning with the condition of the river and the debris,” he said. “I think it’s a little too early to tell with environmental damage or fish loss. Some people are optimistic that it flushed some stuff out. Some say it’s not good because of the sediment load. ”

Rob Lahren is the retail manager for Dan Bailey’s Outdoor Co. in Livingston, and echoed concern about what they will find once back on the water. The local outdoor store does some fishing outfitting and has also seen some cancellations, noting that the Madison was affected, but also some recent bookings as well.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of unforeseen consequences (of the flooding),” he said. “Immediately it’s what accesses are open, what bridges are gone, what are the unforeseen impacts? … We’re also remaining optimistic because fish are survivalists. ”

With the Yellowstone reopening Brown expressed some cautious optimism, saying they had begun scoping traditional launch sites and believed all remained usable. Yellowstone Angler plans to start fishing around the Fourth of July.

Yellowstone National Park flooding

The bridge to Tom Miner Basin off of Highway 89 south of Livingston has been washed out as major flooding washed away roads and set off mudslides in Yellowstone National Park in Montana on June 13.

Larry Mayer / Billings Gazette

Montana’s delegation has also pushed federal agencies to add flexibility on federal lands. In a letter to the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale encouraged agencies to implement measures including streamlined permitting for businesses such as outfitters to operate on public lands in the wake of flooding.

Officials also caution that floodwaters can pose human health risks. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality says it will conduct additional water monitoring in affected areas.

“Even during moderate rain events, it’s common to find high levels of E. coli bacteria in rivers and creeks,” Darrin Kron, DEQ water quality monitoring and assessment section supervisor said in a statement. “With historic rain and flood events occurring in parts of Montana, people should take extra precautions and avoid drinking, fishing, and swimming in rivers after flooding.”

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.


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