Subscribe for 17¢ / day

“I don’t think people are aware of what a nice river we have in Yellowstone County," said Clint McFarland, who has served as a Yellowstone Conservation District supervisor for 39 years. “We’d like to show you what things aren’t going on."

With that brief introduction Wednesday, Bill Fiegel, of Yellowstone River Expeditions in Laurel, powered his jet boat of guests onto the Yellowstone from where the Big Horn River tributary joins it just east of Custer.

For the next six hours, conservation district supervisors and officials from agencies involved with permitting river activities ranging from bank stabilization to diversion dams viewed several projects and natural stretches along a 45-mile length of river from its confluence with the Big Horn to a little upstream of Pompeys Pillar National Monument.

With the exception of the Waco diversion dam, rip-rapping by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. and a few bridges, the segment of the river between Pompeys Pillar and Custer shows relatively little wear and tear from human activity. And other than one small boat near the Captain Clark fishing access, the conservation district tour was the only other boat on the river.

Here, the Yellowstone is rich with wildlife among the cottonwood galleries. Ribbons of American white pelicans flew up and down the river while great blue herons appeared around almost every bend. Herons nest in the tops of cottonwoods, which require spring flooding to regenerate. At least 15 bald eagles, many of them not yet mature, patrolled for fish or perched in the trees or on the sandstone cliffs. An occasional deer wandered to the river for a drink.

For the most part, the river flows freely and is able to use its channels and flood plain. Stretches of eagle sandstone create natural barriers for the river.

Public attention on how the Yellowstone River is being managed has increased since major flooding in 1996 and 1997 triggered bank stabilization projects. Although there are six irrigation diversion dams on the river, the Yellowstone is considered the longest, free-flowing river in the United States.

Several studies of the Yellowstone are under way. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is beginning a study on the cumulative effects of projects on the river. And this week, a coalition of environmental groups released a plan to protect and restore the Yellowstone River.

The trip highlighted a segment of the Yellowstone not often visited. For some, like Harvey Nyberg, regional supervisor of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy, the tour was their first time on this particular stretch.

FWP makes recommendations to conservation district supervisors on permits they issue for river and stream projects. Kennedy is a member of a newly formed resource advisory committee to the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council. Committee members will hlep in the Corps’ study to assess the cumulative effects of human activity on the Yellowstone.

Kennedy said he learned more about the problems that ranchers are having getting water because of low flows and steps that can be taken to temporarily divert the water. The Yellowstone is running at about 33 percent of average flows for this time of year because of extended drought and lack of snowpack.

“It was one of the most beautiful stretches of Yellowstone River I’ve been on," Kennedy said. “It’s gorgeous."

This section of the river contrasts sharply with the reach between Laurel and Billings, where development from residences, agriculture, industries and municipalities have led to dikes, in-stream structures like weirs and pumps and bank rip-rapping with concrete or rocks.

LaVerne Ivie, YCD administrator, said about 84 percent of the property along the river from about Pompeys Pillar and Custer is privately owned. Agriculture is the dominant use. Ivie said the landowners, who may have miles of riverfront, are more inclined to let the river run. “They’re living with it," she said.

Most of the rip-rapping in this lower portion has been done by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad to keep the river from eroding the bank and undercutting its tracks. In some places, the tracks run directly next to the river.

BNSF typically ripraps by unloading large rocks from side-dump cars on the tracks. The railroad has rip-rapped 16 places along the river in Yellowstone County. In one area the railroad track is close to failing because the river is undercutting the bank.

Lou Hanebury, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said one of the concerns with BNSF rip-rapping is the potential effect on fisheries of putting big rocks in a river that naturally has cobbles and gravel. He said BNSF indicated at a meeting with agency officials that it would be too expensive to relocate the tracks.

Larry Robson, with the Corps in Billings, said a BNSF permit to riprap a total of one mile of bank in four counties, including Yellowstone, is on hold pending a study of the impacts by the railroad.

Further upriver, the tour stopped at the Waco diversion dam, a low-head structure that pools water to be used for irrigation. Major repair work was performed on the dam in 1997 during the floods to protect it and an island. The Federal Emergency Management Agency helped fund the project.

Although agencies are beginning to address fish passage and diversion problems associated with the dams, officials agreed that they missed an opportunity to help fish during the Waco repairs.

“These structures, all six of them, are devastating" for fish, said Hanebury. “They can’t overcome water like this," he said, pointing to the water cascading over boulders along the dam.

Tom Hughes, a hydrologist with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said diversion dams impede flow and cause the river to drop sediment behind the dam, filling the channel upstream.

With low flows of concern this summer, the YCD has seen more permit applications for projects to get water or to clear channels plugged with gravel than for bank stabilization. Ivie said the district so far has received eight permits — five for the Yellowstone River — and a few more are expected. The district reviews an average of about 50 permits a year, with the highest one year being 106 permits, Ivie said.