A reporter’s notebook
THE RED LIGHT ON MY DESK PHONE WAS BLINKING. I hate when it blinks first thing in the morning. It usually means somebody has called to tell me I’m stupid. People love to hate their local newspaper, and they love to call reporters and tell them about it. My voicemail is rarely good.
But that day in August 2016, the message wasn’t vitriol – it was a legitimate news tip. Someone was calling to tell me about a bunch of dead whitefish in the Yellowstone River.
It was a Friday morning, and there weren’t many answers. Phone calls to biologists confirmed that there were indeed whitefish rotting on the banks of the Yellowstone, hundreds of them, and more floating downstream. One woman from Livingston told me about seeing one every five feet as she floated the river.
Over the next few days, official estimates just kept growing, landing somewhere in the tens of thousands of dead whitefish, joined by a few suckers and a few trout. But nobody could immediately say why the fish were dying. People told me whitefish are like the canary in the coal mine, that seeing them die can signal bigger problems in a river system. The river was low and hot, but there was reason to believe something else was going on.
A week after that first voicemail, I sat in a conference room at the regional office of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Other reporters were there, and so were a handful of outfitters and fly shop owners. We all knew what was coming. State officials took turns at the podium to explain that a parasite had joined forces with poor conditions to knock out the fish. It had happened before, on the South Fork of the Snake and the Henry’s Fork, every year since 2012. It was the third time the parasite had been discovered in Montana, but the first time with a major fish kill. They still don’t know exactly how it got into the Yellowstone, but the prevailing theory then was that it hitchhiked over on an unwashed boat or dirty boots or waders.
In response, the state closed 183 miles of the Yellowstone River and every tributary between Gardiner and Laurel to all recreation. You couldn’t fish, float or swim. You couldn’t throw a stick into the river for your dog. The state officials said keeping people out of the river was meant to help the remaining fish survive, maybe build up some resistance. Maybe it would stop it from spreading elsewhere.
An hour later, after filing a few hundred words for the web, I went to Livingston. I watched a guide scrub his boat at a coin operated car wash. He’d learned via email while he was rowing a couple of clients down the river. I watched a game warden wave people off the river south of town, including a family that had to end a multi-day float early. I stopped by a boat inspection station that had been set up overnight between Livingston and Bozeman, where FWP staffers decontaminated boats and tried to ensure the parasite wouldn’t make it anywhere else. It was eventually found in 10 other rivers around the state, including the Gallatin and the Madison.
Saturday morning came. I put the morning paper in my stack of keepers and spent the afternoon washing my boots and waders.
MY JOB IS WEIRD. Covering the environment often means wallowing in disaster and its aftermath. This event, all these dead fish, it wasn’t an earthquake, or a hurricane, or a devastating wildfire. People weren’t dying. But a river was hurting, and, because of the closure, so was the community and economy that depends on it. All because of a parasite no one really knew much about. And it was my job to write about it. So every day for the next month, I woke up with one thought: What haven’t I asked yet?
Throughout the whole thing, I ran into a few oddities, like the conspiracy theories that floated in the ether. A common one was that the rotenone from the project to kill brook trout in Soda Butte Creek, hundreds of miles upstream of where fish died, was the real culprit, not this parasite thing. State officials deflected this claim more than once. Rotenone dilutes quickly, they said, and the 2016 portion of the Soda Butte project started after whitefish in the Yellowstone had already died.
I also learned that I grew up near the parasite. It had been documented in hatcheries before, including some near Hagerman, Idaho. I grew up one town over from Hagerman. My dad and I used to plunk worms into stocked ponds near hatcheries there. There were a lot of hatcheries. I can still smell them. I may have known someone who worked in one that harbored the parasite, but there wasn’t time to think about that.
Public meetings and press conferences filled the week after the closure. The governor spoke on the banks of the river, amidst the odor of rotting fish. White bodies floated by behind him and trout sipped flies in feeding lines, carefree.
The next night, hundreds of people crammed into a building at the Livingston fairgrounds. Fishing guides, hotel owners, ranchers, riverfront homeowners who were sick of having dead fish in their yards. Tensions over water use boiled to the surface, as some asked why irrigators weren’t being told to shut their sprinklers off. I filed a story from my truck and went to the Murray Bar, where some of the same conversations went deep into the night.
In a hotel conference room the following week, state labor officials talked about unemployment insurance, job training programs and small business loans. Ways to help people. But fishing guides there worried they couldn’t get unemployment coverage, since many are independent contractors, and they scoffed at the idea of job training. They’d already found what they wanted to do.
THE STATE OPENED THE RIVER PIECE-BY-PIECE IN THE FOLLOWING WEEKS, the full river being reopened about a month after the closure. But on the day the last section was reopened, the river was dirtier than a teenage boy’s browser history. Rain had washed mud downstream from Yellowstone National Park.
Over the next several months, people in Livingston and the Paradise Valley wondered what the next summer would have in store. Would it all happen again? Snow piled up in the mountains, giving reason for optimism, but nobody knew the future.
For the first time in nearly two decades, state biologists surveyed the Yellowstone’s whitefish populations this year. The agency has little confidence in their old numbers, but some wonky comparisons showed the kill may have put a significant dent in the whitefish population. Biologists also noted a decline in the number of large browns, but they weren’t comfortable tying that directly to the parasite.
The state also worked on a response plan for proliferative kidney disease, so they’d be more prepared next time. Locals created a sort of watershed group that includes irrigators and conservationists. They hope it could help them cut through tension over water use and work together to protect the river. And all the while, they wondered what the summer of 2017 would bring.
Spring runoff was big and powerful, and it washed out populations of the sponge-like organism that serves as a host for the parasite. Summer came, and though it got hot, the river stayed high and cool. The first weeks of August passed without incident. Then the state heard reports of a few dozen dead fish downstream of Livingston.
Biologists floated and counted, just as they’d done the year before. I worked the phones. But this time, the crews didn’t see anywhere near the number they saw in 2016. Fewer than 100 total between their first two floats. The number never grew. They confirmed that it was the same cause, but they never considered a closure. It’s also possible that hurricanes in Texas and Florida, along with fires in Oregon and elsewhere in the West, made a few dead whitefish seem less disastrous than they seemed last summer.
After a week, I was done asking questions.