Voice of the River

Our Gallatin Opportunity: Prioritizing River Conservation

The eagle is exactly where an eagle ought to be, perched high in a dying streamside pine along the Gallatin River. It’s likely perusing the breakfast menu—brown trout, whitefish, rainbow. The scene is simultaneously iconic and common place, inspiring enough for me to pull over but something I have witnessed countless times before.

Nevertheless, the eagle’s presence is reassuring. It’s an indication that the Gallatin is still doing its job. There must be food in the clear shallows below this apex predator, or else she would be somewhere else. She doesn’t have time to waste sightseeing—there is a purpose and she has a goal in mind.

On this cold November morning, I fumble with my camera in the front seat of my car, thinking that one can never have too many photos of eagles in trees hunting Montana’s rivers. As I kill the engine and get ready to open the door, a coyote lopes through a frost-covered field and makes the treeline just before I can adjust my lens’s zoom. Just a coyote, I think, not a wolf or bear.

I cross the highway, dodging concrete trucks and pickups. I finally reach the other side, but the eagle is long gone and I have missed my shot. Not to worry, there will be other eagles.

Rolling south now, back on highway 191, a bend in the river reveals a bull moose mid-current. No animal can appear quite as indifferent as a moose. The ungulate’s hulking frame and massive rack suggest its nonchalance is appropriate. He has earned his right to relaxation, and knows that hoof-deep in the Gallatin, he is safe.

Again, I search for a pull-out in the hopes of a photo, but this attempt is more hopeless than the first. When I safely get to the side of the road, I am a mile from the moose and there is no hope of turning around quickly in the sea of vehicles.

Disappointed but not discouraged, I look down and notice I am parked above a deep run of crystal-clear water. It is cold and ice lines the riverbank, but this is exactly where trout would hold on a chilly day like this.

Sure enough, upon closer inspection, a school reveals itself, glued effortlessly to the riverbed where the current is weakest. There they wait, saving energy through the lean months of winter. If I had my rod, I might try to hit one in the nose with a zebra midge, but the odds of stirring them at this hour of the morning are slim, and I am a terrible fisherman. I spare myself the rejection and get back on the road.

By the time I reach my office in Big Sky, I have wended my way through the wildlife-laden Gallatin Canyon, stopping when the inclination struck to attempt a photo or scout for trout. The drive that should take under an hour door to door has required almost two, meaning I am just in time for a meeting instead of well prepared.

As I fiddle with my headphones and try to find the combination of mute and unmute that will stop the incessant echoing of my colleagues, I’m struck by the drive I have just taken—the same drive I take twice a week when commuting from Bozeman to Big Sky.

All of this, and so much more, is right here. These iconic mammals, birds, and fish are right here, and in droves. We see them so often and in such familiar contexts that it is easy to take them for granted.

On my drive from Bozeman, I see bison, elk, mule deer, whitetail, hawks, eagles, bighorn sheep, moose, coyote, and trout. Where else in the world is that possible? I have seen black bear and river otter, and the luckier ones see wolf and grizzly. We are living in a singular ecosystem, and we cannot forget that.

While I see the wildlife and marvel, I also see the roadkill. I see the traffic, the roadside trash, the subdivisions and the algae blooms. There is so much good in Gallatin Canyon, but we cannot forget about the bad.

Access to this place is a privilege. It is an extraordinary opportunity to live and work and play within the Gallatin River watershed, on the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park. Doing so requires special attention to our impacts, and a deeper understanding of the bad that comes along with something this good.

Foundational to this understanding is water. We are here because of the Gallatin’s clean, cold water, but our presence here threatens the very resource we depend on. How can we reconcile these two realities?

First, we must acknowledge that there are already serious problems facing this ecosystem that we are causing. The three tributaries of the Gallatin River flowing through the town of Big Sky are impaired. They contain too much pollution, and we are causing that pollution. While this is an inarguable fact, it is also true that we can mitigate these impacts through better resource management and targeted restoration of degraded habitat. That work is underway and has been ongoing for some time, but we must scale up the effort.

Second, we must prioritize Gallatin River conservation with every decision we make from now on. If we want clean drinking water for our families, we must conserve water. If we want ample flows for healthy trout, we must conserve water. If we value the wildlife in Gallatin Canyon, we must conserve water. In our case, the cliché holds true—water is the lifeblood. We cannot exist without it and we cannot continue taking it for granted.

Back on the road after a long day in the office, I join the line of cars headed north. When I can, I catch glimpses of the river flowing by. I wonder if the deep runs hold trout, if the eagle ever ate and where the moose wandered off to. I think about how central the Gallatin is for so many species, and for so many people.

We as a community have the opportunity and privilege to protect this invaluable natural treasure. Let’s wade a little further, let out a little more line, and adjust our back-casts slightly—a clean river and healthy Big Sky depend on us getting this just right.

This post was originally published by Explore Big Sky.

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