The upper Gallatin River is famous for its easy access. From the Yellowstone National Park boundary to the mouth of Gallatin Canyon, anglers, rafters, and kayakers enjoy almost 40 miles of public waterway and riverbank—but this convenience is not without consequence. All this access, combined with increased tourist visitation and resident population growth, is starting to take its toll on the river’s health.
The most obvious impacts have been to streamside vegetation, vital habitat for aquatic insect species and trout. Anglers and boaters looking to access the river trample willows and other riparian vegetation, inadvertently killing the essential plant life. These plants act as anchors for rocks and soils along the shoreline, and they filter sediment and pollutants during runoff and storm events.
Without streamside vegetation, erosion increases, adding more sediment to the waterway while changing riverbank composition. Willows also provide shade for trout, keeping the water cool in the heat of summer. More sediment and less shade are a bad combination for fish health, and all these little impacts are adding up.
As part of a long-term partnership with the Custer Gallatin National Forest, the Gallatin River Task Force undertook a study of public river-access sites. From the YNP to Spanish Creek, 101 sites were identified where river users are leaving permanent impacts, mostly at or near highway pullouts. At these sites, streamside vegetation has been trampled, invasive plant species have flourished, and in-river fish habitat has suffered.
To mitigate the problem, restoration projects were prioritized along the Gallatin Canyon corridor, looking first at popular sites with heavy recreation use. It was at these sites that we could guarantee the highest return on our investment.
In 2018, the Task Force completed work at the Moose Creek Recreation Area, installing bio-engineered streambanks, replanting willows, building sustainable kayak and raft launches, and constructing user paths to concentrate access. We also expanded the parking area to provide for increased recreation pressure.
Moose Creek is complete, and another major restoration project is underway, this time upstream of Deer Creek. This area sees a lot of traffic all summer long, from hikers at the Deer Creek trailhead to anglers casting dry flies in Baetis Alley. Whitewater rafters also use the site to launch guided and private trips down the river, and the Green Bridge has long been a popular swimming hole.
Construction will begin later this summer, with project completion slated for late fall. New features will include a dedicated parking lot to discourage off-road vehicle use, an accessible fishing platform, sustainably designed kayak and raft launches and restored streamside vegetation. The site will also feature angler paths to concentrate river access and offset erosion.
While these large-scale projects go a long way toward restoring river health, it’s important to consider their goals and lessons every time we visit the river. If there is an established angler path, stick to it. Doing so decreases impacts to riverside vegetation. Clean, drain and dry your gear to limit the spread of aquatic invasive species, and park your vehicles on durable surfaces to limit damage to riparian areas.
If we want to continue to entice trout to take our flies, we’ll need to be good keepers of their river habitat. This means taking thoughtful steps toward conserving, preserving and restoring vital ecological systems, like wetlands, floodplains and riparian areas throughout the watershed.
Access sites are an important step, but the same ethos should be applied to other land use as well, from residential construction to commercial development. Taken together, these are the building blocks for a healthy Gallatin.
This article originally ran in our Water Wisdom column on Explore Big Sky.