Poplar Pipeline Response Water Update by Montana Fish, Wildlife Parks

All indications are the Poplar Pipeline oil spill has had a little ill effect on the Yellowstone River’s fish and wildlife, and in particular, should have no effect on the upcoming paddlefish season.

Mike Backes, fisheries manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 7, said FWP hasn’t seen any obvious signs of ecological damage caused by the spill.

“We went out and did a boat tour two days after the ice came off and we didn’t see any dead fish or oiled wildlife and we haven’t fielded any calls about any,” Backes said.

The only physical evidence of the spill in the environment was some oil staining FWP officials spotted on some of the ice blocks near the spill site, Backes noted.

“Beyond that, it was almost undetectable that anything even took place as we went down river,” he said.

An FWP fish consumption advisory issued shortly after the spill does still stand, though the last fish samples from the river FWP had tested showed no signs of hydrocarbon contamination.

“We did a second round (of fish sampling) and essentially came back as a non-detect, but it was a very small sample size,” Backes said.

Now that the ice is off the river, FWP has been able to collect a much larger and diverse sampling of fish from the river. Backes said those samples were collected last week and are currently at the lab being tested.

“It’ll be a fairly robust sample size and will give us the ability to make a decision (on lifting the fish consumption advisory),” he said. “When we get those back, we’ll be able to hopefully finalize this fish consumption advisory.”

As for paddlefish, FWP recently announced it has no intention of altering the season or issuing an advisory against consuming paddlefish meat or caviar.

However, Backes noted his office is still fielding calls from paddlefishermen concerned that the spill might have negatively impacted the fish. He said that concern, while understandable, is largely unwarranted.

“I think people are assuming the paddlefish were sitting in the Yellowstone River when the spill took place, but no, they’re not,” Backes said. “Those fish live in Lake Sakakawea 10 to 11 months out of the year and don’t start moving up the Yellowstone until the water rises and becomes turbid in late spring.”

FWP will likely take some paddlefish samples for testing when the season starts, Backes said. There is a chance the fish could have come into contact with some of the oil spill contaminants as they made their way into Lake Sakakawea. 

However, he added that even if they did, by the time any oil from the spill hit the lake, it would have been largely dissipated. He also noted that paddlefish are widely distributed in the lake, which would reduce the chances of large numbers of them coming into contact with high levels of contaminants.

Finally, Backes said fish contaminated by oil are not the same as fish contaminated by other industrial pollutants, like mercury or heavy metals.

“The hydrocarbons in the oil aren’t like mercury or heavy metals that fish absorb and store in their bodies for the rest of their lives. Fish will flush hydrocarbons out of their system in 30-40 days,” Backes said. “By the time the paddlefish season rolls around, those contaminants will have flushed through the (river) system and the paddlefish themselves, if in fact they came into contact with it at all.”

While the oil spill shouldn’t negatively impact this year’s paddlefish season, Backes said the river itself may do so.

“The way the water projections are shaping up, it doesn’t look like a great water year, which usually translates into not a great paddlefish season,” he said.