The Last Free-Flowing River in the Lower 48: A Brief Journey Down the Yellowstone

The Yellowstone River begins its journey to its confluence with the Missouri on the slopes of Younts Peak.

From the steep heights of the mountain, snowmelt and rainwater pour forth to create the South Fork and North Fork of the Yellowstone. At the juncture of these two streams, the Yellowstone is born. Here, at its origins, the Yellowstone runs clear and icy cold as it carves its course through alpine meadows and dark-green pine forests.

The far Upper Yellowstone flows through one of the remotest regions in the contiguous United States. Nevertheless, the annoying sound of aircraft can still be heard here. The drone of their jet engines makes it impossible to forget that modern America is within earshot. But one thing you will not hear along the far Upper Yellowstone is the incessant and intrusive hum of the American highway system. There are few places in the United States that remain immune to the sound of high-speed automobile traffic. Fortunately, the far Upper Yellowstone is one of those places.

In July and August of each year, grizzly bears and mosquitoes own the far Upper Yellowstone Valley. During the area’s brief two months of summer, grizzlies work the valley for grubs, berries, and fish. At night, the mosquitoes take possession of the valley. An ominous, steady, buzzing sound settles upon the land after sunset. As the darkness thickens, millions, maybe even billions, of mosquitoes take flight in their nightly search for blood.

I once thought that a region so remote, and so obviously wild, would be without environmental problems. But the Upper Yellowstone River is currently facing an ecological crisis. Ever since the introduction of lake trout into Yellowstone Lake in the 1980s, the number of cutthroat trout in the upper river has been in decline. Cutthroat trout once migrated out of the lake into the upper river to spawn. Today, few fish make that trek. On a hike to Younts Peak in July 2006 I did not see a single trout in the Yellowstone along its entire upper reach (from Yellowstone Lake to the juncture of the river’s two forks). Admittedly, my impromptu and unscientific survey was based entirely on personal, and rather inconsistent, observation. Nevertheless, it is a fact that lake trout predation has led to significant cutthroat population declines in the upper river.

The absence of cutthroat has deprived eagles, osprey, and grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (of which the upper river is a part) of a vital food source. Eliminating, or reducing, the lake trout population and restoring the cutthroat population to the river and lake continues to confound the biologists of the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There are no easy solutions to this ecological conundrum.

As the upper river nears Yellowstone Lake, it branches out into a series of narrow, shallow channels. Just before entering the lake, the river forms a small, muddy delta. The tawny waters of the delta appear in sharp contrast to the dark blue of the lake.

Yellowstone Lake is one of the world’s deepest freshwater lakes at over 390 feet deep. To the human eye, the lake appears flat; but it actually tilts toward its northern end. That tilt causes the lake to flow north to its outlet near the park’s famous Fishing Bridge.

Once through the lake outlet, the Yellowstone becomes a recognizable river again. In the next thirty miles, the river puts on its most spectacular display of beauty and power.

A few miles downstream from Fishing Bridge, the river slowly meanders through the Hayden Valley, where the herds of bison, the open country, the vast skies, and the free-flowing river create an image of the untrammeled West.

After exiting the Hayden Valley, the river cascades over the Upper Falls. The violence, speed, and noise of the Upper Falls is in sharp contrast to the tranquil flow of the river just upstream.

Immediately downstream from the Upper Falls, the river leaps over the taller, more dramatic Lower Falls. It then passes through the high-walled Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The river through this section is full of color and motion. When the water smashes against rocks it becomes white with foam and spray. When it runs deep and fast through mid-channel, it appears dark blue. To add to the kaleidoscope of colors, small rainbows appear and quickly disappear above the rising and falling mists.

Beyond the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the river passes through the little-known Black Canyon of the Yellowstone. This section is little known because few of the park’s three million annual visitors ever step out of their cars long enough to hike down to it.

Once out of Yellowstone National Park, the river moves through Gardiner, Montana. Gardiner’s motley collection of buildings stands on both banks of the river. The river and the town are so close together it is hard to determine which is uglier. Undoubtedly, the town’s past leaders never heard of the phrases: “city planning,” “urban aesthetic” or “building codes.”

Not far from Gardiner, the river enters Yankee Jim Canyon. In the 1940s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considered building a dam here. That dam, and its resulting reservoir, would have backed water up to the boundary of the national park. After a thorough analysis of the site, the Army ruled against it. Government engineers concluded that the dam and reservoir would not store enough water to appreciably lower flood heights in the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers; nor would the dam produce enough hydroelectricity to justify its cost. Consequently, Yankee Jim Canyon escaped the dam builders.

Beyond Yankee Jim Canyon, the Yellowstone enters the reach known as Paradise Valley, which extends all the way to Livingston, Montana. Paradise Valley has dramatically changed since the 1970s. Once a land of ranches, alfalfa fields, and geniune cowboys, the valley is now filled with subdivisions, McMansions, and vacationing New Yorkers.

The changes in the river through this reach since the Seventies reflect the changes that have taken place on the land. In order to protect the McMansions from the river’s natural propensity to wander, property owners have riprapped the river’s banks. They have also constructed wingdams to deflect the river’s channel away from their little piece of terra firma. The river responded to the riprap and wingdams in three ways: 1) it increased its channel velocity; 2) it ceased to meander; and 3) it quit flowing through some of its side channels. All of these changes have harmed the trout population. Once a world class trout fishery, the Yellowstone River through Paradise Valley is rapidly losing that status. Here, like elsewhere in the U.S., real estate sales have trumped river ecology.

The waterfront at Livingston resembles a medieval fortress. But the boulders that serve as ramparts don’t protect the town and its residents from marauding bandits or the Mongols. Instead, the massive stones are there to keep the Yellowstone out of the town. There is nothing subtle about these stone levees. They are absolutely enormous. The size of the levees indicates the degree to which Livingston residents fear the river.

East of Livingston, the river breaks away from the riprap, levees, and wingdams and again wanders across its valley floor. Because of a diversity of riverine habitat, the trout population rebounds through this section. The trout fishing through here can be top-notch, especially in August, at the height of the grasshopper season.

As the river moves further east and north, there are fewer and fewer people visible along its banks. By the time the river passes Terry, Montana, it is a rarity to see a human being on the banks of the Yellowstone. But people still use the river. Millions of gallons of water are taken from the river each year to irrigate adjacent lands.

Water withdrawals from the Yellowstone and from its tributaries poses a further threat to the ecological health of the river. With increased coal, gas, and oil development in the Tongue and Powder river basins (two tributary basins of the Yellowstone), there exists the real risk that much of the water from those streams will be diverted to provide water to extractive industries. If so, there will be less water for the Yellowstone’s fish and wildlife.

Near Glendive, Montana, the Yellowstone passes over the Intake Dam, which is a run-of-the-river dam, meaning it does not actually regulate the river’s flow. Instead, the structure backs up a small portion of the river in order to divert some of the river’s water into an irrigation canal. The remainder of the river is allowed to pass unimpeded over the top of the dam. The Bureau of Reclamation built Intake Dam in the early 20th century as part of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project. The irrigated lands within that project lie on the Yellowstone’s west bank, extending sixty miles from the dam northward to the Yellowstone-Missouri confluence. Much of the irrigated land within the project grows alfalfa to fatten cattle.

Since its construction, Intake Dam has blocked the upstream spawning migration of paddlefish (also known as spoonbill). Recently, the federal government studied whether to modify the dam to allow the paddlefish to move around or through the structure. Following this survey, federal officials concluded that the cost of modifying the dam would be prohibitive. Consequently, Intake Dam will not be altered to benefit the paddlefish.

Downstream from Intake Dam, the Yellowstone makes its final dash toward the Missouri. As it nears the Mighty Mo, the waters of the Yellowstone no longer jump and dance as they do further upstream at Terry or Miles City. Instead, the river moves slowly and heavily. At Sidney, Montana, the Yellowstone is wide, deep, and dark brown. When the Yellowstone finally enters the Missouri, its waters push aside the clearer, greenish waters of the latter stream. At the confluence, the Yellowstone appears the dominant stream. However, hydrologists have long considered the Missouri the parent stream, with the Yellowstone its largest tributary.

Although the Yellowstone remains the last, large, free-flowing river in the Lower 48, it still faces a number of threats to its ecological health. In the far upper valley, the cutthroat trout population faces further declines unless lake trout predation can be reduced; while along the reach through Paradise Valley, riprap and wingdams negatively effect trout populations. And along the lower river, water withdrawals and the Intake Dam are two additional threats to the river’s ecology.

In the twentieth century, the Yellowstone escaped the dam builders. It remains to be seen whether it will escape extensive development in the twenty-first century.

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