As one speaker put it Thursday night during a panel discussion on the state of the Yellowstone River, if the Mississippi River is Old Man River, then the Yellowstone may well be the prom queen.
Four experts moderated by Susan Gilbertz, director of the Montana State University Billings environmental studies program, gave the panel discussion “Voices of the River” as part of the Flow interactive art exhibition being hosted by MSUB.
A study on the cumulative effects of multiple uses along the longest free-flowing river in the continental United States will be released next month; Thursday’s discussion gave the 45 or so people in attendance a sneak peek at the study — all 340 pages of it, with a 1,500-page appendix of the science on which the study is based.
Warren Kellogg, who chaired the study's technical advisory group, displayed slides showing not only how much the population living along the river has grown since 1900, but where the river's channel has moved over the years.
"The basic premise is, rivers like to move," he said. "They don't like to be held down — like many of us."
Kayhan Ostovar, an associate professor of biology and environmental science at Rocky Mountain College, said the Yellowstone River is home to at least 56 species, more than any other river in Montana. But three of those species — the pallid sturgeon, the piping plover and the least tern — are endangered.
Students are working with Ostovar to help count species that also face challenges, including the spiny softshell turtle and bank swallow. Turtles’ blood is drawn so that researchers can gauge the concentration of heavy metal contaminants the turtle is carrying.
Like other panelists, he expressed confidence that the river's diversity of species and plant life can be maintained.
“If we can ensure that ecosystems are functioning dynamically,” Ostovar said, “I think we’ll be OK.”
Burt Williams, a former Bureau of Land Management administrator who later worked for The Nature Conservancy, said he enjoyed the 16-year process that led, finally, to the completion of the analysis.
“We got to a reasonable place by listening to people,” he said, especially to the stories of river residents, recreationists and agricultural producers following the 100-year floods of 1996 and 1997.
One success came on the Tongue River, a major tributary of the Yellowstone, with only about 30 percent of the wildlife diversity that the Yellowstone features. Environmentalists, agricultural producers and state and federal agencies worked together to construct a fish channel around a Tongue River dam. Soon 1,000 fish began swimming upriver each day. Before none did.
“That was accomplished,” he said, “just by people working together without great suspicion and anger.”
Author and environmental attorney Carrie La Seur said she’s been working with a recent legal concept on long-term guardianship for the river as articulated by the Indigenous Environmental Network. Under the Bemidji Statement, current generations are responsible for the guardianship of treasures like the Yellowstone so they can be successfully handed down seven generations later.
She proposes appointing a Yellowstone River guardian to help make that happen. Current generations have a responsibility to heed early environmental warnings and warn future generations, she said.
“We have the responsibility to admit mistakes and to course-correct on early indications of harm,” she said. “It is a step toward being good ancestors.”