Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Who's Problem is It? Let's Take an Objective Look at the Yellowstone

I just read an article that has been shared across the Facebook inter-waves and I immediately wanted to respond. However, I found a bunch of wasp nests in my back yard and it was just about sundown, which the directions on the can say is the best time to address that issue. My response would have to wait but it did give me some time to think while running from those bastard wasps and I feel like now I might have something a little more thought out to say.

The article was published in The Drake magazine and written by Greg Bricker called, "Beyond Parasites: How Western Water Law is Drawing Blood from the 'Stone." It's not hard to get the tone of the article by the incendiary title and let me just say, I find myself jumping in on this side of the argument often, without putting a lot of thought into it because it is personal and it does affect my livelihood. But let's take a step back for a second and brings some objectivity to the argument.

I think Greg's point is that when things like the recent die-off of thousands of fish on the Yellowstone happen, we as recreationists, are made to cease our activities on the rivers because of the stress we are putting on the resource. Meanwhile, ranchers and farmers can go about their business as usual, even though they are just as culpable at creating the situation by dewatering the rivers where the water gets too low and temperatures too high for fish to fight off such diseases like Proliferative Kidney Disease and there is no consequence.

When I first heard of the closure on the Yellowstone, I didn't see it as trying to alleviate any stress we as recreationists were putting on the fish. I took it as wanting to contain the situation until there was an understanding of where the disease came from and how likely it is that it gets spread. However, after reading the article I kind of started getting fired up and totally agreed. I mean, how fair is it that we have to stop making a living to protect the resource but the landowners can keep drawing down the water? That's bullshit!

Ok, then I started reading the comments and saw all these folks having the same kind of sentiment accept for one. That would be the attitude expressed by long-time guide and outfitter, Mark Daly who basically called out Greg for rallying the troops and pointing fingers at the ranchers for their share of the problem--a problem one could argue that has been created in large part by climate change and drought. If nothing else, Mark's comments helped bring me back to center for a bit, helping formulate what I want to say now.

Mark is right. If we attack folks for making a living the only way they know how because we want to make a living, nothing is going to get accomplished. They have the laws and the power on their side and if we look at it as one side versus another, we will never move forward. We will never even approach a solution and our industry and our resources will continue to dwindle until we don't have them anymore and then everyone loses.

Every time something like this comes up, I immediately look to the Blackfoot Challenge, which is made up of landowners and recreationists who together, have come up with solutions on how to address the problems of a river that was in serious need of some TLC. Together, community members developed a plan to preserve the resource so that everyone benefits and it seems to be working and people seem to be getting along. Other examples of cooperative efforts are out there like the Clark Fork Coalition and I'm sure there are more. The bottom line here is that these are cooperative efforts that can only happen if bridges are built between the interests of all groups that depend on the resources instead of burning those bridges by pointing fingers and blaming others.

Now trust me, I do believe the water rights laws in the West are outdated and no longer serve the majority's best interests. We've all heard the figures; 64,000 jobs and about $6 billion a year and I believe tourism is number two in the State behind, yep...agriculture. But most of us take part in recreating on the rivers and I'd be willing to bet a lot of the rancher's family members make their living on the rivers either directly or in some kind of tertiary industry as well. So it would be in their best interest to preserve those resources, right? Of course it is but it's hard to get the leaders of the largest industry in the state to the table with a mindset of compromise when they are being put on the defensive or they feel like they stand to lose their livelihoods. Especially when they can fall back on the law and they are completely in their rights for using what was granted to them. If we want to change the laws and make some progress, we need to be objective, understanding and we need to take some accountability as well.

I guess what I'm saying is that instead of writing pieces that put folks on the offensive and threaten their way of life, we should set up an action plan that first of all; recognizes the importance of all the industries in Montana and get's folks from the agricultural industries jump on board with the idea that not only are the health of the rivers important for our own recreation but it's also important for their neighbors and for their own children in many cases, to survive and prosper. Then we can invite those folks to the table and use science to come up with a clear vision of where the problem is and what we can do about it. If we don't get everyone on board, we're not going to have the resource for very much longer.

As a side note, while I was writing this I was curious about the water temps in the Yellowstone and whether or not it seemed unusually high for this time of the year. The temps have been dropping down into the low to mid 50's every night and back up to about 63 or 64 degrees all the way down in Livingston. I realize it's a week or two later than when the die-off occurred but the weather hasn't changed much and to be honest, that doesn't seem that high to me. The temps on the Missouri are higher with it starting at 63 or 64 degrees at the dam every morning and going up to 66, which is pretty normal for this time of the year. In all the research I did, PKD is most devastating to fish when temps are above 54 degrees and most of us are blaming high temps due to low water as the problem. My point here is that it's not just the warmer water. To suggest dewatering doesn't have a negative impact on fisheries would be na├»ve and irresponsible but something else is playing a role and I think we have to figure that out.

We have more and more people coming to Montana every year. We have more and more guides traveling further and further to work. With that, we potentially bring more and more invasive species to our waters and can spread those critters around. We have to take some accountability as well and start looking at what our own practices are doing to exacerbate the problem.

Keep 'em where they live...

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