MISSOULA – The recent closure of the Yellowstone River due to a parasite outbreak resulted in an economic loss to businesses in Park County, Montana, of $360,000 to nearly $524,000, according to preliminary estimates from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana.
Sections of the Yellowstone River were closed on Aug. 19 by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks because of a parasite outbreak that killed thousands of whitefish. Closure of segments of the drainage to all water-based activities directly impacted spending behavior by visitors to counties affected by the closure, thus reducing revenue to river-dependent business such as outfitters and guides, fly shops, rafting companies, river shuttle companies and myriad spin-off businesses in lodging, food and beverage services, and area attractions. The estimated economic losses are the equivalent of five to eight full-time jobs.
“We used nonresident visitor spending data based on previous surveys conducted by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research for these numbers,” said ITRR economist Jeremy Sage.
The Upper Yellowstone River is the most fished river drainage in Montana by residents and nonresident visitors to the state, amassing more than 374,000 angler days in 2013 (the most recent angling pressure data available from FWP), and accounting for nearly 11 percent of all angler days in the state.
According to ITRR, nonresident visitors in 2015 who fished or rafted on Montana’s rivers outstayed and outspent the average Montana visitor. Groups who fished stayed in Montana 9.17 nights and spent an average of $218 per day for a total of $1,999 per trip, significantly more than the average Montana visitor group, which spent 4.59 nights and $149 per day, for a total of $685 per group-trip or $128.6 million last year.
Similarly, nonresident groups that participated in rafting, floating, kayaking or canoeing spent an average of $227 per day on their trips in Montana, for a total of $92 million. Like groups that fished, these travelers outstayed (9.47 night average) and outspent the average Montana visitor. Note that the spending for the two identified groups is not additive as there is significant overlap between them.
Some of the loss to businesses in Park County due to the river closure is likely to be offset by the potential gain to businesses near the Madison and Missouri rivers where many fishing guides subsequently took their clients. Further analysis is needed to estimate the overall impact to the state. Additionally, while economic losses may have occurred immediately, the decision to close the upper Yellowstone River by FWP was based on reducing the potential future impact to Montana waters, fisheries and the overall economy.
The invasive parasite killing thousands of Yellowstone River whitefish was unprecedented in Montana. FWP’s decision to institute the temporary closure was based not only on the observed presence of the parasite, but also a number of confounding conditions that may threaten longer-term impacts if not effectively addressed. Such conditions include low river flows, elevated water temperatures and recreational pressure on the fisheries.
The Yellowstone River closure on Aug. 19 and its tributaries ran between the northern Yellowstone National Park boundary near Gardiner to Laurel, about 183 miles downriver. The closure applied to all water-based recreation uses on the affected rivers and streams. FWP states that a major goal of the closure was to not only prevent spread of the parasite to other rivers, but more importantly, to protect infected fish from the stress of angling and other recreation in order to increase their survival to the following year. Infected fish that survive to the following year can show signs of developed resistance to the parasite.