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

The Yellowstone River begins its 692-mile-long journey to its confluence with the Missouri River on the snow-covered sides of Younts Peak.  Younts Peak is a mass of rock towering over the Teton Wilderness of northwestern Wyoming.  From the steep heights of the mountain, snowmelt and rainwater dash downward into the South Fork and North Fork of the Yellowstone.  On the northwestern edge of the big mountain, these two streams join to form the Yellowstone proper.  Here, at its origins, the Yellowstone runs clear and icy cold as it cuts graceful bends through alpine meadows and dark-green pine forests.  The far Upper Yellowstone (as the river here is known), and the region through which it passes in the Teton Wilderness, are part of the most remote piece of territory in the contiguous United States.
The nearest automobile road lies sixty miles away.  Nonetheless, during the summer months, it is still possible to encounter frequent pack trains hauling wealthy fly-fishers to distant waters.  The annoying sound of jet aircraft can also be heard here.  The drone of their engines makes it impossible to forget that modern America is still 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 constant 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 floor for grubs, berries, and fish.  At night, the mosquitoes take control of the valley.  An ominous, buzzing sound settles upon the valley after sunset.  As the darkness thickens, millions, maybe even billions, of mosquitoes take flight in their nightly search for blood.  Any warm-blooded creature found by the swarms of small-winged vampires will suffer a horrible fate.  I once thought that a region so remote, and so obviously wild, would be without environmental problems.  But in fact, the far 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 far upper river has been in decline.  The cutthroat trout once migrated out of the lake into the far 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 river along its entire upper reach (from Yellowstone Lake to the juncture of the river’s two forks).  Of course, my impromptu and unscientific survey was based entirely on personal, and rather inconsistent, observation.  Nonetheless, it is a proven fact that lake trout predation has led to significant cutthroat population declines in the far upper river.  The absence of cutthroat has deprived eagles, osprey, and grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (of which the far 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 far upper river nears Yellowstone Lake, it branches out into a series of narrow, shallow channels.  Through the ages, the river has created a small, silt-laden, brown delta at the head of the deep lake.  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.  The National Park Service states on its Yellowstone National Park website that the lake possesses a maximum depth in excess of 390 feet.  To the human eye, the lake appears flat.  However, the lake actually tilts downward toward its north end.  Because of that tilt, the lake flows north to its outlet near the famous Fishing Bridge.  Once through the lake outlet, the Yellowstone becomes a noticable river again.  It is in the next thirty miles that the river puts on its most spectacular displays of beauty and power.  First, it slowly meanders through the scenic Hayden Valley.  It is not uncommon to see bison and elk swimming across the river through this reach.  Here, the animals, the open country, the vast skies, and the free-flowing river create an image of the untrammeled West.  It is an image most of us desperately need in an increasingly crowded American landscape.  Just north of the Hayden Valley, the river flows off a 109-foot precipice before crashing into a cloud of white water.  The violence, speed, and noise of the Upper Falls appears far from the tranquil flow of the river through the nearby Hayden Valley.  Immediately downstream from the Upper Falls, the river cascades 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.  As the river hurries downstream, its water becomes various shades of blue.  Then, when the water smashes against rocks it becomes white with foam and spray.   To add to the color, small rainbows appear and quickly disappear above the rising and falling mists.  On the canyon walls, reds and yellows are visible in ancient streaks of earth.

Beyond the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the river passes through the little-known Black Canyon of the Yellowstone.  It 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 this canyon.  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.  Town leaders in Gardiner have likely never heard of the terms “city planning,” “urban aesthetic” or “building code.”  Gardiner actually looks like something shat out by the bison herds roaming upstream in the park.  Not far from Gardiner, the river enters Yankee Jim Canyon.  In the 1940s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considered building a dam within this canyon.  That dam would have backed water up to the boundary of the national park.  After a thorough analysis of the Yankee Jim dam 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.  Also, the dam would not produce enough hydroelectricity to justify its cost.  Thus, 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, big fat cattle and geniune cowboys, the valley is now filled with subdivisions, McMansions, and vacationing New Yorkers with money and a sense of elite privelege.  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 laterally across its valley, property owners have riprapped the river’s banks.  They have also constructed wingdams to deflect the river’s channel away from their parochial little piece of terra firma.  In response to the riprap and wingdams, the river has increased its channel velocity, ceased to meander, and no longer flows through previous side channels.  All of these changes have diminished fish and wildlife habitat and harmed the trout population.  Once a world class trout fishery, the Yellowstone River through Paradise Valley is rapidly losing that status.  But in Montana, as elsewhere in the United States, bankers, real estate brokers, and corrupt county commissioners establish zoning laws and authorize construction projects.  In Paradise Valley, the money to be made in the real estate market has triumphed over trout and the river’s ecology.

The waterfront at Livingston resembles some sort of medieval fortress.  But the boulders that serve as ramparts are not there to protect the town and its residents from marauding bandits or the Mongols.  Rather, the massive stones along the Yellowstone at Livingston are there to keep the river out of the town.  There is nothing subtle about the dikes built through Livingston.  They are absolutely gigantic.  They stand far above the river.  Moreover, the dikes have disfigured the Yellowstone.  They have made the river into a dangerous monster.  The river now flows so fast through Livingston that anyone wanting to get close to the river risks death by drowning in the turbulent water.  The size of the dikes indicate the degree to which Livingston residents fear the river.  The oversized dikes also indicate the strength of the river when in flood.  East of Livingston, the river once again meanders and runs through numerous side channels as it breaks away from the riprap and wingdams.  Because of the diversity of habitat in the river channel area, the trout population rebounds through this section.  The trout fishing through here can be top-notch, especially in mid-August, at the height of the grasshopper season.  During the waning days of summer, it is possible to daily see dozens of drift boats with fly-fishers working the river for brown trout.  After Big Springs, Montana, the trout fishing tapers off and the river becomes less crowded with recreationists.  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 the river is still used here.  Millions of gallons of water are taken from the river each year to irrigate the lands adjacent to the stream.  Water withdrawals from the Yellowstone itself, and from its tributaries, pose 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, in the years ahead there will be less water for the Yellowstone’s fish and wildlife.

Near Glendive, Montana, the river passes over the Intake Dam.  Intake Dam is a run-of-the-river dam, meaning that the dam does not actually regulate the flow of the stream.  Rather, 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 from the dam northward approximately 60 miles 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 methods for modifying the dam to allow the paddlefish to move around or through the structure.  However, federal officials recently concluded that the cost of modifying the dam would be prohibitive.  Consequently, Intake Dam will not be modified to benefit the paddlefish.  After Intake Dam, the Yellowstone makes its final push toward the Missouri.  As it nears the Missouri, the waters of the Yellowstone no longer lightly jump and dance as they do further upstream at Terry or Miles City.  Instead, the river now becomes heavy with plains silt; it also slows down, deepens, and widens out.  At Sidney, Montana, the Yellowstone exhibits a steady, strong current.  Nothing can stand in the way of the Lower Yellowstone – it’s an unstoppable force.  When the Yellowstone enters the Missouri, its milky brown water shoves the clearer, greenish water of the Missouri all the way to the later river’s north bank.  At the confluence, the Yellowstone appears the dominant stream.  Nonetheless, hydrologists have long considered the Missouri the parent stream, with the Yellowstone its largest tributary.

Although the Yellowstone remains the last, free-flowing, large 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.  Through Paradise Valley, subdivisions, riprap, and wingdams continue to negatively effect trout populations.  Along the lower river, water withdrawals and the Intake Dam are two additional threats to the river’s ecology.  The Yellowstone escaped the dam builders of the 20th century, environmentalists and concerned citizens cannot let it fall victim to 21st century developers who appear as real estate brokers, energy corporations, and ecologically-insensitive property owners bent on riprapping their land.

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