Strangling the Last Best River

  • Yellowstone River

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • FREE-FLOWING BUT CONTAINED: Yellowstone River, Park County, Mont.

    Karl Petersen
  • The Yellowstone River

    Jon Catton photo

Montana statesman Mike Mansfield, summing up the highlights of his career in the U.S. Senate, claimed to be most proud that he "had saved the Yellowstone River from the Corps of Engineers." But while the Yellowstone is still the longest undammed river in the Lower 48, it is now a long way from "saved."

A half-dozen diversion dams interrupt its flow. Trucks have dumped rock, or riprap, along miles of river bank, locking what was once a migrating and healthy river system into a single channel that effectively moves the vast runoff from the high Rockies but performs less and less like the mighty river that meandered and eddied its way through the mountains and across the high plains. Even without dams, this last free-flowing river is beginning to resemble its tamed counterparts across the West.

Last summer, fisheries biologist Joel Tohtz studied trout species in the river near Livingston, Mont., and discovered a disturbing absence. Trout populations were down 60 percent from a previous survey, and the decline was a general one - there were simply very few fish, of any age class, in this traditionally very productive stretch of the river.

"I would have to guess that the number of stabilization projects in that area is responsible for the decline," Tohtz says. "It is an unstable and heavily populated part of the river, and we have confined it for those very reasons. In confining it, we have made it a downspout."

Riprap anarchy

Back-to-back record flood years in 1996 and 1997 made the problem much worse, spurring riverfront property owners to embark on a frenzy of what the Greater Yellowstone Coalition has called "riprap anarchy."

The most common riprap method is to use heavy equipment to smooth eroding banks and then blanket them with a layer of large boulders, a process that is also referred to as "armoring." Tohtz describes the most heavily armored sections as performing "like a fire-hose" at high water, sweeping everything downstream. Where normally the river would overflow its banks and dissipate its energy into the surrounding cottonwoods, willows and grasslands of its floodplain, a confined river can only scour its own channel down to bedrock or disperse its energy at an unconfined stretch downstream. That raises serious problems for any landowners along the river.

"Riprap begets riprap," says Missoula hydrologist and river consultant Bruce Anderson. "A river like the Yellowstone is a completely dynamic system. If you pin it down one place, the energy moves somewhere else. This fact forces a landowner downstream of a riprap project to consider a riprap project of his own."

In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency asked the Corps for a moratorium on stabilization projects. Corps officials refused, saying that under current regulations, the Corps could not deny landowners the permits to protect their property from the river.

During a three-year period beginning in 1995, the Corps permitted 78 rock barbs - walls of rock that jut into the current - and more than 11 miles of rock riprap in the portion of the Yellowstone that flows through Park County.

Its entire, 600-mile length - from its source in Yellowstone National Park to where it meets the Missouri River just across the North Dakota border - is threatened. Once the river flows north out of the park and reaches Livingston, it turns to the east and sets off across the plains of eastern Montana.

"The trend is going all the way down the river," says Rob Hazlewood of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Montana. "It's not just in Park County. We're equally concerned about the rest of the river."

In Park County, 25 percent of the river's banks are covered by blanket riprap or manipulated by large dikes, and permits were issued last summer to blanket thousands more feet of bank near Livingston. Although the Corps does weigh both the concerns of the landowner and the possible ecological effects of such projects before issuing a permit, each project is reviewed individually - cumulative effects are not considered.

In 1996 and 1997, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote dozens of letters to the Corps protesting riprap projects. The Corps never once responded.

"We may not have replied directly to the USFWS, but we did try to address their concerns," says Allan Steinle of the Corps of Engineers. The Corps' critics disagree.

"They were turning the river into a rock-lined rain gutter simply because people wanted to live in the floodplain," says Hazlewood. "The Corps just kept on issuing the permits, in direct conflict with our interests at Fish and Wildlife."

In response, the agency asked the Corps for a moratorium on stabilization projects. The Corps refused. Afterward, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot created the Upper Yellowstone Task Force to oversee a three- to five-year study of how riprap projects are affecting the health of the river ecosystem.

Working toward a solution

"Let's thank God they didn't get the moratorium," says John Bailey, chairman of the task force. Bailey spoke from his office in the back of Don Bailey's tackle shop, a longtime mecca for flyfishers from all over the world. "You've got a river here that people have been putting riprap in for a long, long, time. The repercussions of going cold turkey could be extremely radical," he says, adding that he is in no way advocating more armor for the river. "For one thing, it's ugly. But we have so much of it now that we cannot just put a halt to it. If one side of the river is confined, the other side is going to pay a price, and the moratorium says that we just write that side off. I don't think that we can do that, in all fairness."

Most people believe the task force is a step in the right direction. "It is a great idea," says Dennis Glick of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "I wish it represented a larger sector of the public. If you run through the list of members, you find mostly people with an economic interest in the river. There are realtors, landowners, the owners of the spring creeks where people pay to fish. There is only one person from an environmental group, only one fisheries guy."

Glick also worries that after years of study, the Task Force will confirm what officials like Rob Hazlewood already suspect - that confining the Yellowstone River is destroying it as a functioning natural ecosystem, but that the powerful economic interests will cause the riprapping to continue.

Hazlewood of the Fish and Wildlife Service says the river must be protected from short-sighted engineering solutions now, to avoid the necessity for restoration later.

"At some point we have to understand that these things ruin rivers," Hazlewood says. "We would just like to see the river continue to do what it has done so well for thousands of years."

Hal Herring writes from Corvallis, Montana.

You can contact ...

* Rob Hazlewood, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 406/449-5225 ext. 211;

* Joel Tohtz, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, (406/222-5105);

* Allan Steinle, Army Corps of Engineers, Helena, Mont., 406/441-1375.

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