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The Yellowstone River stretches over 670 miles and is the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states. Originating in Yellowstone National Park, it drains 70,000 square miles of land before it joins the Missouri River northeast of Sidney, Montana. In addition to an abundance of fish and wildlife, the Yellowstone River supports a wide variety of agricultural, domestic, industrial, and recreational uses.
The natural and historic significance of the Yellowstone River, combined with major floods in 1996 and 1997, elevated interest and increased public debate over the impacts of human activities on the River. The lack of information upon which to base permitting decisions emphasized the need for public forums to discuss complex issues and potential solutions. Governor Marc Racicot created the Upper Yellowstone River Task Force in 1997 to address problems arising from the floods and begin studying the cumulative effects in Park County. In 1999, the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council was formed to address conservation issues on the entire river.
Who We Are
The Yellowstone River Conservation District Council (Council) is made up of representatives from eleven conservation districts bordering the main stem of the Yellowstone River (see sidebar). A twelth member represents the Resource Advisory Council for the YRCDC. The Council has a chair and a vice-chair, one each selected from the upper and lower reaches of the river.
Conservation districts have over 60 years experience successfully working and cooperating with private individuals, groups, and agencies to conserve Montana’s natural resources. As legally established entities in their respective counties, they are ideally suited to develop partnerships with the many stakeholders dedicated to conservation of the river. The Council receives technical assistance and advice from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Department of Environmental Quality, Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Army Corps of Engineers, US Geological Survey, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies. The Council coordinates closely with the Upper Yellowstone River Task Force.
The Council’s purpose is to provide local leadership, assistance, and guidance for the wise use and conservation of the Yellowstone River’s natural resources. This purpose is founded on three fundamental precepts:
1) The need for scientific information on which to base management decisions.
2) The need for broad-based local, regional, and national input.
3) The need for technical and financial assistance to address sustainable use issues on the Yellowstone River.
The Council is currently focusing on four areas in which conservation districts traditionally work:
- Bank stabilization (310 permitting issues)
- Irrigation water impacts, availability, and water reservations
- Livestock, grazing, and farming issues
- Water quality and stream impairment
- The Council worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to complete the initial scoping of a federally mandated cumulative impacts study. This proposal insures local input and direction through the Council, into a federal effort to study the river. The Project Management Plan and Cost Share Agreement were signed by the Council and the Corps of Engineers January 22, 2004 allowing work on the study to proceed as funds become available.
- In November 2000, the Council completed an aerial mapping project of the entire river to chart eroding banks, in-stream structures, irrigation facilities, bridges, and other features. This was followed by a county-by-county, on-site inventory of the river’s physical features, completed Fall 2001.
- In Fall 2000, the Council co-hosted the Yellowstone River Roundtable to coordinate federal and state technical and financial assistance. The Council was recognized as the coordinating entity on the river and a commitment was made for the Federal and State agencies on the locally led effort.
- The Council established in 2001 a Resource Advisory Committee and a Technical Advisory Committee to advise the Council on constituent and technical river issues, respectively.
- Numerous projects and studies have been completed, are in progress, or planned:
- Completed a Rapid Aerial Assessment to create a Physical Features inventory of man-made structures on the Yellowstone River;
- Conducted a comparative study of current and historic geomorphic features and fisheries which were used to select sites on the river as "representative reaches" for in-depth study;
- Created a publicly accessible spatial database with Montana’s Natural Resources Inventory System;
- Developed a Yellowstone River Resource Information and Education Center, which includes a web site with current and future river activities;
- Develop Best Management Practices and project guidelines for use on a voluntary basis for work in the Yellowstone River.
- The Council worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help define the rules which govern a new provision in the 2002 Farm Bill, the Partnerships and Cooperation program. This proposal will enhance technical and financial resources to owners, operators, and producers within the Yellowstone River Valley corridor to address natural resource issues related to agricultural production. The Council’s Resource Advisory Committee hosted a P&C meeting in February 2003 to identify river reaches or points on the River where potential agency and interest group partners might work with landowners on potential projects.
The Council’s goal is to encourage communication and cooperation among all stakeholders on the Yellowstone River. Toward this end, the Council developed a shared vision and set of common goals with the Yellowstone River Conservation Forum, which represents environmental interests on the river. The Council and the Forum believe the conservation of the river and the sustainability of its various uses can best be accomplished by grassroots collaboration, education, incentives and voluntary action. This list of "Common Goals" is not an exclusive list and specifically recognizes that other goals may be forthcoming from other stakeholders on the river.
Vision: A healthy river and riparian system capable of sustaining the needs of Montana citizens and communities.
- Maintain and improve water quality
- Maintain and improve water quantity at critical times of low flow
- Encourage and promote family farms and ranches along the Yellowstone River based on sustainable use of natural resources
- Control non-indigenous species of plants and animals that are harmful to agriculture and natural systems
- Develop and support recovery efforts for threatened and endangered river species with particular emphasis on efforts that sustain agriculture and other economic river uses
- Enhance bird, fish and wildlife habitat and wildlife programs compatible with agriculture
- Encourage partnerships with government and non-government groups
- Enhance community involvement in river stewardship
- Develop recommendations for "Best Management Practices" to maintain a naturally functioning river system