Climate Change is Here: Yellowstone River Closure

Climate Change is Here: Yellowstone River Closure

Yellowstone River, August 2016, Closed to Recreation

So, for anyone who hasn’t heard yet, the Yellowstone River has been closed to all recreational use due to a massive fish kill. 

This photo was taken from the bluff overlooking the Mallard’s Rest fishing access. On a normal August Saturday, there’d be boats and rafts and tubes and SUP boards launching and taking out by the dozens here. August is the peak of the season — kids are still out of school, tourists and fancy anglers are all on the river, fishing and floating.

The problem is that the river is at a historic low flow during the hottest summer ever recorded planet-wide. There are flow records going back to 1872. The river has never been this low, ever, at this time of year.

Climate change is here. This is what it looks like. A river we all think we know, a river we all think we can just float and fish at will, has turned over like the thousands of dead whitefish littering its shores. We beat up the river we claim to love to the extent that when someone put in with a boat they hadn’t cleaned, a boat that had been somewhere over on an infected river in Idaho or Washington, the river didn’t have any resources left to fight off the introduction of a parasite.

Two weeks in, the parasite load is so enormous that the fish are dying of septic shock. They’re not living long enough for the parasite to kill them through it’s normal means (or to hope to fight off the parasite). Eileen Ryce, the FWP hatchery chief, said the parasite bloom is most likely so enormous because of the high water temperatures and low flows.

I can’t help wondering why anyone is surprised. It’s been insane around here this summer. The tourist season has been manic, and I don’t think that it’s just because of the 100th anniversary of the National Park System. Every morning when I walk Hank-the-dog, I watch traffic fly past on the main road between Livingston and Yellowstone National Park. Both local and tourist traffic is almost entirely made up of enormous trucks, sometimes pulling a boat trailer, but just as often driven by one lone person, flying down the highway at 75 mph alone in a 150 or 350 pickup. And then there are the RVs — huge RVs that are bigger than the first railroad flat I lived in in Manhattan (with a roommate), also flying down the highway at 70 or 75, often trailing a car, or a trailer full of 4-wheelers behind them.

This is madness. This is a collective action of denial on all our parts.

We cannot keep burning fossil fuels the way we have been if we intend to survive.

We probably cannot keep abusing the river with the levels of recreational and fishing use we’re used to.

This is a tourist economy, and figuring out ways to save the river we love, is going to take some real creativity, and probably some regulation. But if this summer makes anything clear, it’s that application of a consumer capitalist model to outdoor recreation, that is, one where tourism and recreation are marketed as an unlimited resource, and where increasing tourism numbers are only ever interpreted as being good for the local economy, is as flawed an application as any other model. No matter what the resource, it’s not infinite. The river has told us in no uncertain terms that it has a carrying capacity for humans, and this summer, it reached that capacity.

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