Climate Change Threatens Yellowstone River

The recent massive die-off of fish in the Yellowstone River has led Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to abruptly end the fishing season and close the river and its tributaries within state boundaries. These measures were taken when over 2,000 dead mountain whitefish were discovered floating in the famous river. With the river closure, more than 183 miles of waterways are now off-limits to all water recreation activities.

Studies show that the cause of the fish mortality is kidney disease triggered by a parasite. The unprecedented nature of this case is the result of low water levels and warm water temperatures – impacts that are worsened by a changing climate. While only 2,000 dead fish have been found, park staff estimate that tens of thousands of whitefish have been killed. There is also concern that the parasite may be spreading to other fish species, such as rainbow trout and the already climate-impacted Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

Whitefish. Photo from Bing Creative Commons

Montana’s outdoor recreation economy generates $2 billion annually in retail sales and services across Montana, supports 34,000 jobs across the state, and generates $118 million in annual state tax revenue, according to surveys conducted by the Outdoor Industry Association. Much of the state’s outdoor economy depends on the angling season, with Yellowstone River being a big draw. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that each year 570,000 people participate in wildlife-related recreation in Montana, and of these, 267,000 fish.

Yellowstone River. Photo from BLM
Yellowstone River. Photo from BLM

The fish kill in Montana seems especially foreboding with the centennial celebration of the National Park Service this week. As the first National Park, Yellowstone has long been held up as an ideal of the wild unspoiled west. A 2013 National Park Service survey shows that the 3.2 million visitors to Yellowstone National Park spent almost $382 million in surrounding communities and supported 5,300 jobs.

Since no dead fish have been found in the park yet, the park’s rivers remains open. Nevertheless, the Yellowstone River fish die-off exemplifies how climate change poses a very real threat to these valuable public lands. It is critical that congress act to protect them now.

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