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Montana Fish and Wildlife sees big drop in fish population in Stillwater River

Stillwater River
Posted at 6:00 PM, Jul 03, 2024

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is reporting a significant drop in the fish population in the Stillwater River over the past few years.

FWP said that while the decrease is partially due to the historic flooding from two years ago, it's probably more caused by the clean-up efforts after the flood rather than the disaster itself.

"It's usually due to environmental factors, but sometimes it's more human interaction," said FWP fisheries biologist Bryan Giordano.

The report looks at two parts of the river: the upper portion, which is the area above Rosebud Creek, and the lower portion, which is everything below Rosebud Creek. Each part of the river has a different decline in fish, but both are cause for concern, according to FWP.

The upper portion has been declining steadily the past two decades and now sits at 10% fewer fish than what it had been due to a decrease in water flow.

The lower portion's decrease is much more concerning. From the fall of 2022 to the fall of 2023, the river saw a nearly 50% decrease in population of fish.

"A lot of people living in Montana and come to Montana because of our natural resources, and angling is a big portion of that," Giordano said. "When we decrease that fish population, it's harming local businesses, and it's harming folks that are here to recreate."

Among those in both the business and recreation categories is 90-year-old Bob Kimball. Kimball runs his own fly shop in Absarokee, after moving here from Colorado, partially because of his love for fishing.

"There's rivers in Colorado and there's rivers in Montana, but there's a difference," Kimball said with a smile. "I can't explain it. There's a lot of cowboys, lot of rodeos, lot of cattle, good steaks but lots of fly fishing."

For Kimball, finding peace and serenity is the best part of fishing.

"Anyone who wants to get away from the world, get away from the stress, should try fishing," Kimball said. "You can walk away never catching a fish and feeling great."

While Kimball might be okay casting a line and coming up with nothing, he expressed concern at the population decrease and even encouraged anglers like himself to do what they can to help.

"I think that if we as fisherman would take the lead, knowing that there maybe is a decline, that would be very instrumental," Kimball said.

FWP believes the main reason for the decrease is the cleanup after the floods, which saw many Montanans rebuilding river banks, which eliminated fish habitats along the shore.

That's why they are hoping for help from the community, asking landowners along the Stillwater to reach out if they are willing to allow their shoreline to be used to help rebuild these habitats.

"We're looking for willing land owners that want to do fish-friendly projects," Giordano said. "Anybody that is willing to help with a rebuild project would be super helpful."