Somebody Tell the Governor, He Seems Not to Realize the Damage He’s Done
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
News about the Yellowstone River this summer sounded bad, real bad, and it was terribly misleading. At the behest of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Governor Bullock on August 19 closed an unusually long stretch of the river, 193 miles, to fishing and recreation. All of the river has since been reopened, but the damage to its reputation as a premier trout fishery, and therefore potentially to the local economy, has been allowed to endure by the same people who closed it—FWP and the Governor.
The closure was badly mismanaged in terms of public relations, economics, and an understanding of human nature.
The Associated Press, picking up on the sensational 193-mile closure, led stories with phrases inducing readers to believe that trout in the river had been all but killed off, while nothing was further from the truth. In fact, the trout all along have been doing just fine, while what the river experienced was a white fish die-off, a common occurrence according to veterans of the river. Even The New York Times, a publication poorly acquainted with Montana, publicized the closure. But we found more sensationalism than perspective and explanatory details in these stories, including locally, which failed to feature the relevant fact (that the trout are fine).
All along, the awful impression conveyed to the world by the river closure, and the associated potential damage to the local economy, has been allowed to fester due to neglect and bureaucratic tone deafness on the part of both the Governor and FWP. In our talks with FWP we stressed that the die-off as a limited event ought to be emphasized, which seems to have been mentioned at least (finally) in a press release (see page 11). Yet an FWP official (not Andrea Jones) declared it was not their responsibility how stories are written. But they are wrong.
We, here, received each press release and examined the content. With a whopping 193 miles of closure, only the lamest of bureaucrats could not foresee the looming public relations disaster. The closure sent a damaging message across the fly fishing world, yet neither FWP nor Governor Bullock explained that the closure was in effect precautionary. Nor did they position the health of the river’s trout population prominently in any message. Yes, it could be deduced, but the impression left was of riverine cataclysm. Governor Bullock, who ordered the massive closure, then walked away from it like an arsonist from a fire, letting the terrible news do its damage for years to come.
As is not uncommon, numerous whitefish were observed to have died on the Yellowstone upriver from Livingston. This occurs often, veterans of the river will tell you, though the recent die off was greater than usual and cause for concern, which put FWP temporarily in a state of confusion until they could gather data on the river. And so the closure of the river for so many miles, all the way to Laurel, Montana, was precautionary. And while the “undesirable” white fish (to anglers) lost a few thousand of their total population (a few percent), anglers and river enthusiasts ought to take heart that our trout did not turn up dead in a serious way at all, indicating they are strong and resilient in the Yellowstone River.
As we all now know, a parasite was found in the river in various species of fish that leads to kidney failure or septic shock. Keep in mind that low water, and the Yellowstone was running quite low this late summer, concentrates the parasite. Keep in mind also that these fish are more resilient in cold water, while this particular stretch of the river was warmer than usual this August .
Even so, only a tiny number of trout were hurt by the parasite, even in unusually poor conditions, and most that tested positive were healthy, suggesting they are immune and strong. Trout or whitefish, what’s more, being exposed to the parasite, develop immunity if they have not already done so, leading to a healthier fishery than before. And, one would think, the trout will fare better generally in terms of competition after a white fish die-off, though white fish will come back as well as mother nature works her adaptive magic by endowing them with natural resistance as they survive the parasite.
Again, trout populations, all along, all species of trout, have been healthy and resilient.
Mr. Governor, are you not aware of the pertinent facts? Could you not have shouted this message from the mountain tops, Yellowstone Trout Are Healthy? And will you now please launch a massive public relations campaign, given the damage you have done by letting the misleading news create such an awful impression going into next season for communities associated with the Yellowstone?
At cause, in terms of the whitefish die off, has been a combination of conditions—low water and warm water due to a warm early spring, and probably a stretch of river with lower oxygen. The Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, for instance, told us in person that zero fish kills had turned up in the Park, south of the affected area, because in the Park the waters of the Yellowstone are higher, colder and deeper—conditions beneficial to fish and that dilute concentrations of the parasite (which is not harmful to humans or animals). But, still, in the worst hit area of the river the trout are doing fine, according to FWP. And a retired guide we know reported good fishing just north of Livingston (when other stretches were still closed).
In response to the criticism herein, the Governor’s office and FWP will emphasize that they were faced with a potentially grave fish kill that could have harmed the trout fishery, which is true. But that is not the point. The point is that the governor and FWP irresponsibly managed their message and caused the predictable public relations disaster of such a long river closure — nationwide headlines.
Now is the time to correct that mistake, Gov. Bullock, if you are up to it, but it will require an effort and ingenuity greater than the impression you left by closing 193 miles of the Yellowstone.
That Our Trout Are Healthy should be plastered across the Big Sky and beyond. And, Mr. Governor, this skywriting would be a better use of a taxpayer owned plane than flying to a Paul McCartney concert. Please, sir, focus. Trumpet this message across the country and around the world—on behalf of thousands who depend on the Yellowstone for their livelihoods.