The Day the Yellowstone River Died

Like many guides on the Yellowstone, Jason Corbin has been leading trips for years. Chris Douglas

I’ve always found it hard to trust a town that didn’t have a river flowing through it. Livingston, Montana, where I’ve called home for the past 13 years, seems to be an eminently trustworthy place. This is due in large part to the Yellowstone River. The longest undammed river in the Lower 48, the Yellowstone winds north from the national park named after it and makes a big eastern turn in Livingston before heading toward the prairie and its eventual confluence with the Missouri. Most of the people I know here rely on it in one way or another for income, recreation, solace, or some combination of all three. We don’t often call it the Yellowstone. To us it’s just the river.

We take our kids and dogs there to learn how to swim. We walk to it at night when we can’t sleep. It’s the place for first dates and last rites. People I know have pledged themselves to each other on its banks. People I knew have lost their lives to its current. If you could somehow measure it, I think you’d find that the pulse of the river is inseparable from the pulse of the town itself.

So it’s a strange feeling to wake up one morning and quite suddenly find the river gone.

In mid-August, fishing guides, myself included, started noticing an unusual number of dead mountain whitefish. The species, a sort of unglamorous cousin to the trout, gets a grudging amount of respect from fishermen, especially guides, who appreciate their voracious appetite and willingness to eat the poorly presented offerings of the average client. Though not often the target of our serious piscatorial pursuits, the sudden appearance of dead and dying whitefish was of major concern. It is generally believed that whitefish need colder, cleaner water than most trout, and thus they assume the role of indicator species — the canary in the coal mine.

This past winter the Yellowstone drainage received lower-than-average snowfall, and that, coupled with an early summer heat wave, resulted in near-record small stream flows. In such conditions — warm, low water, which has become increasingly common — some fish mortality is to be expected. But this year, as the days went by and the whitefish continued to line the banks in an ever increasing and stinking number, it became clear that something more was going on.

When the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) weighed in, it was with unprecedented severity: The river and all its tributaries — from the boundary of Yellowstone National Park downstream to the town of Laurel (some 183 miles) — were now closed to recreation. In San Diego, this would be like roping off the beaches of Southern California.

When the announcement came, I was on the river, guiding a group from the East Coast, an annual reunion of college friends, a trip that I’d been working for years. They’re all nice guys and each pays thousands of dollars for several days of fishing and lodging. We’d been having a decent morning of fishing when my phone started erupting, to the point where I could no longer ignore it.

The FWP had released an email statement advising us on Governor Steve Bullock’s decision to close the river. Effective immediately. I read this email on my phone, twice, at first not believing it, sitting in my boat while my clients fished away obliviously. Eventually I had to break the news that our day was over.

“Seriously?” one of my guys said. “They can do that?” Apparently so. We reeled up the rods, and I started the long row down to the takeout. One of the guys had a bottle of whiskey, and we broke that out. Each floating whitefish corpse that washed by seemed like another repetitive verse in the same evil portent. Clearly this was bad.

The official word was that the whitefish were falling victim to something called proliferative kidney disease, a microscopic parasite that previously had been documented on rivers in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, with the potential to cause a 20 to 100 percent mortality rate among certain species. The river would be closed indefinitely to prevent people from unwittingly spreading the disease to other rivers, via boats and waders, and to reduce stress on fish from fishing. The warm waters this summer had made the fish particularly vulnerable.

The Murray Bar that night was full of fishing guides, as usual. The owner, Brian Menges — himself reliant in large part on fishing tourism — instituted an open tab. Despite this, the mood was decidedly somber. Half the crowd was on their phones canceling trips or trying to reschedule clients on other rivers, scrambling to salvage the wreckage of what is normally the most lucrative time of year in a strictly seasonal business.

Soon after the closure, a state of emergency was declared, releasing public funds to help support those of us affected by this decision. In one meeting, the subject of “retraining” was broached. At the bar that night we all got a big kick out of that one. Most of us became fishing guides, in part, because we’ve been actively resisting training our whole lives.

With the river gone, the repercussions began to pile up. Fishing and rafting guides, shuttle drivers, restaurant owners, and lodge proprietors — every one of their operations ground to a startling halt. Recreation brings in some $6 billion to the state’s economy, and this closure — painful but necessary — was a massive hit to everyone.

In recent years there have been a string of similar closures around the country: hiking and hunting bans in national forests in New Mexico and Washington primed for megafires; beaches in Florida and the Gulf Coast closed off because of dangerous algae blooms. But there’s something decidedly different when it’s your forest that needs closing, your beach, your river. More than a few of us wandered around like we’d been gut-shot.

Friends and family and fishing clients from around the country began calling. What’s the deal with the river? Is it as bad as I read in the news? It was something I don’t often think about, but, as I heard the dismay in their voices, I realized that even people who live far from here care about the Yellowstone. They need to know that rivers like this still exist. They may only visit once a year, or less, but having that experience factors into the stories they tell about themselves, and it’s an important part of who they are. For every fishing guide in Livingston, there are hundreds of people who have busy lives in big cities who go about their day never fully able to get the river off their mind.

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon with nothing much to do, I went down to Carter’s Bridge, one of the busiest boat launches on the river. In what would normally be peak season, it was eerie to see the parking lot nearly empty. There were a few other folks like me, standing beside our cars, watching the water go by. It was strange to see it there, still flowing. I hadn’t been out guiding on the river in almost a week, my longest stretch of the season, and I stood there experiencing something that must be akin to the phantom-limb pain amputees feel: an uncomfortable, simultaneous presence and absence. I know I’m not alone in my habit of taking my problems to the river. What to do then when the river is the source of the problem itself? What to do when it’s the very act of our loving these waters that is contributing to the fish’s demise?

I don’t think I’m the only one who views the events of this season as a harbinger of things to come. The greatest concern among people I know is that this might become the new normal. Is low, warm water and all the problems that come with it going to become our yearly reality, a recurring symptom in a world facing greater global climate change?

The river will reopen fully at some point — probably once the winter snows come — but a situation like this is a harsh reminder of both the fragility of our natural resources and the tenuousness of the jobs that rely on them. Deep down many of us realize that guiding for trout is not a sustainable occupation. But that doesn’t mean we want to do something else. A guide friend of mine stood up at the meeting that day and said, “Retraining? I don’t need retraining. I’m damn good at what I do.”

I feel his indignation, too. We’ve devoted ourselves to learning the nuances of the river, to knowing the eddy lines that hold big fish and the bends that obscure upcoming whitewater. We find pleasure in sharing that knowledge with others, and those interactions fuel our existence. When it comes down to it, guiding is less a way of making a living than a way of living itself. In this context retraining is not an affront but an omen. It means learning to live without a river that’s become the heartbeat of our town. It means embracing an untrustworthy state of existence. It’s something I hope we never get comfortable with.