BOZEMAN, Mont. — A brand-new study is looking at how recreation and increased tourism impacted the Yellowstone River over the last two years.
Experts wanted to know if it put unforeseen strains on the ecosystem. It started in 2018 when people started voicing concerns about overcrowding and the impact on the fisheries.
“The discussions that came out loud and clear that, certainly the state, if it were to even consider doing, say, a recreation management plan, on the upper Yellowstone, would have to have some data. And that quite honestly, at that point, they had no data or next to none,” Upper Yellowstone Watershed Recreation Study program manager Whitney Tilt said.
They decided to change that. The Upper Yellowstone Watershed group led a project and started collecting data in 2020.
Help came from local businesses, Fish Wildlife and Parks, Montana State university, the University of Montana, and environmental nonprofits.
They used timelapses from nine different cameras to gather information.
“While we get some wonderful pictures of everything from wildlife to people acting wild, the sole purpose is to gather the number of people whether they're in a raft or personal watercraft, are they fishing, and then absolutely we know the time of day, we know the weather, we know the water temperature,” Tilt said.
An interesting note on the study was the 25% jump in uses of Yellowstone River access sites since 2021.
“The 25% increase has several caveats attached to it. The flood, one it closed the entire river for quite some time, then several of the sites throughout the river were badly damaged, and so that helps constrict us to fewer sites,” Tilt said.
There's also the belief that the pandemic led to more traffic visiting river access sites, since people were carpooling less to social distance.
“Because if you and I were going fishing with Joe Blow, the fishing guide, we'd all meet at the fish access site, versus all meeting at Albertsons, and getting in one vehicle and driving down,” Tilt said.
They still have another year to collect data and then they'll move forward.
“We really would love for 2023 to be a normal, normal year. So, the last part is to then, having helped identify the current conditions on the river to start moving to what we do about it, and that is starting to coalesce with input from the community,” Tilt said.