Yellowstone River: Building Resiliency

Photo: Steven Brutger

By Pat Byorth

The Yellowstone River is a crown jewel among the world’s trout fisheries, but not by accident. Like most major rivers in the United States, the Yellowstone has suffered abuses of pollution, flow diversions, invasive species, and loss of floodplain. 

Since the 1960’s, public and private conservationists have built a healthy foundation for the river, cleaning up pollution, stifling a major dam proposal, and nurturing fisheries back to abundance. Even still, the river suffers crises such as the outbreak of a parasitic disease now killing thousands of native whitefish. 

The same optimism that restored and defended the Yellowstone in years past is urgently needed today. The Yellowstone River will recover if conservationists and policy makers continue to invest in building resiliency into the system.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s  state fisheries biologists teamed with conservationists to change Montana water policy to allow irrigators to conserve water for instream flow. Early on, Fish, Wildlife, and Parks secured water leases in key tributaries of the Yellowstone River. By returning stable, late summer flows to Big Creek, Cedar Creek, and Mulherin Creek these humble tributaries annually reinvigorate trout populations with tens of thousands of Yellowstone cutthroat fry. 

These successes proved the theory that a healthy watershed with connected tributaries is better equipped to thrive and revive after insults like pollution or disease outbreaks.  Building on those early successes, Trout Unlimited has secured water leases on Brackett Creek and the North Fork of Fridley Creek and has teed up another half dozen projects that are each about restoring streamflows in tributaries supplying clean, cold water to the Yellowstone. Each streamflow restoration project is a collaboration between water users, neighbors, agencies and Trout Unlimited to invest resources wisely to keep agriculture thriving and the river healthy. 

The fact is, even healthy rivers have bumps in the road. But a healthy ecosystem, providing clean, cold water, connected tributaries and healthy habitats are the antidote for upsets in the fishery. 


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