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Recreational Use Study


Tourism at National Parks, such as Yellowstone, have seen a dramatic increase due to Covid and other reasons and are putting unforeseen strains our pristine ecosystems and local communities. (see CNBC and CBS news articles). Recognizing the need for a basic understanding of the level of recreational use on the Upper Yellowstone River and its impact on natural resources and wildlife, the Upper Yellowstone Watershed Group (UYWG) initiated a cooperative project to collect baseline information on river use, in order to understand the roles human beings play in the watershed.


In 2020, the Upper Yellowstone Watershed Group launched a cooperative project to collect baseline data (who, what, where, to what extent) on the recreational use of the Upper Yellowstone River.

The study’s overall goal is to assess the level and type of recreational use, capacity of existing access facilities, and gauge public attitudes, including river recreationalists and riparian landowners.


The study has completed four years of data collection and now invites public discussion, review, and comment on the study’s final report and recommendations.

Boat and Bird.png

The project is being conducted cooperatively by the UYWG, Institute for Tourism and Recreational Research at University of Montana, and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, along with the active involvement of river stakeholders and local residents. Volunteers included the fly-fishing and recreational business community, private land owners, Arthur Blank Foundation, Park County High students, PCEC, college students and local citizens. Supporting businesses include but are not limited to Dan Bailey's Outdoor Company, Angler's West, Nelson's Guides & Flies.


In helping to  assess users’ expectations and experiences, UYWG will be regularly communicating this data and information, which is critical to ensuring river recreation is managed to balance public access, quality of experience, respect of private property, and care of natural resources, while honoring the privacy and right of the public to recreate on the river. This is a forward thinking effort to allow the public to provide input that will guide any future decisions on the management of the Yellowstone River. It is understood that the 2020 season will look different due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is why this effort will continue into the future to help create a data set that will illustrate multi-year usage trends.

Contact for more information.

2020-2024 Recreational Use Study Overview


2022 Recreational Use Study

(major flooding started on June 12)


2021 Recreational Use Study

(hoot owl started on July 20th, lifted on August 23rd)

2020 Recreational Use Study

Data was collected in two ways:
  • Surveys taken of users at various access sites at various days within the summer season. This data provides a snapshot in time of river usage. Only one person was surveyed per group of recreational users at an access point. You can download the survey results via the below button.
  • Counting boats/people while the boats are floating down the river or at public fishing access sites. Humans and game trail cameras are used to do the counting. Because the former is labor-intensive effort, the data is limited to certain days of the year. The use of game trail cameras could eventually give us 24x7 information throughout the season. Currently, humans are used to count the images being generated by time-lapse and triggered cameras. Next generation AI cameras are being trialed to eliminate false positives and therefore provide the least expensive, most data possible.
Part of the total data collected in 2020 is provided in a report by ITRR funded by the State of Montana Lodging Tax, with the help of paid staff and unpaid local volunteers. This data is mostly informative for its survey of actual users. You can read the full report by clicking on the yellow survey button. (Also informative are prior studies included here.)
For some it is easier to understand recreational use by looking at actual images of river usage. To that end, we set out four game trail cameras up and down the Upper Yellowstone and captured time-lapse images of the river from July through September. We captured over 210,000 images and then hand-analyzed them to count boats and recreational uses as they floated by. To give you a sense of this process, below is just one day of data gathered upstream from Pine Creek to Carter's Bridge, which is a popular stretch of the river just south of Livingston. Here is some of the data we extracted from this one location on one day. The hope is that this type of visual data helps us all better understand what actual use looks like across a span of time.
  • 1st Recreational Use occurred at 11:37:18 AM Non-Commerical Fishing Drift Boat (next boat at 11:56 AM)

  • Last Recreational Use occurred at 8:27:48 PM Non-Commercial Fishing

  • # Fishing Boats were 23 with a total of 59 people

  • # Non-Fishing Boats were 107 with a total of 273 people

  • 3.8% of the traffic was commercial: There were zero commercial Non-Fishing Boats and an estimated 5 Commercial Fishing Boats

The following video replays the day from the first to last recreational use, compressed in to a little over one minute.

Observational Sites

* Primary manager by color code: Montana FWP, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Park County, Private  

  • Gardiner Town access (mile 0)

  • Queen of the Waters (mile 2.2)

  • McConnell Landing (mile 3.5)

  • Brogran’s Landing (mile 7.4)

  • Cinnabar/Corwin Sprs. (mile 8)

  • Slip & Slide (mile 12.9)

  • Yankee Jim (Joe Brown) (mile 13.7)

  • Crystal Cross (mile 17.5)

  • Carbella (mile 18)

  • Point of Rocks/Hookum (mile 21.6)

  • Point of Rocks MDT (mile 22.5)

  • 26 Mile (mile 27.2)

  • Emigrant Rest Area (mile 25.2)

  • Emigrant (mile 33.5)

  • Emigrant West (mile 34.1)

  • Grey Owl (mile 36)

  • Chicory (mile 36)

  • Mill Creek/Pray Bridge (mile 40)

  • Dan Bailey/Paradise (mile 40.3)

  • Loch Leven (mile 44.4)

  • Loch Leven Picnic (mile 45.5)

  • Mallard’s Rest (mile 47.3)

  • Pine Creek (mile 50.7)

  • Mouth of DePuys (mile 57.5)

  • Carter’s Bridge (mile 58.5)

  • Free River (mile 58)

  • Mayor’s Landing (mile 64.7)

  • Various Private Property Sites

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is a recreational use survey being conducted on the Yellowstone River?


After the PKD outbreak, fish kill, and subsequent river closure in 2016 local residents, stakeholders and agency personnel convened the Yellowstone River Symposium in the spring of 2017. Recreational use on the river was a top-of-mind issue that many people brought up. All agreed that little quantifiable information existed on recreational use and pressure. Interest in developing baseline data led to the development and planning of this survey.


Who is involved with the survey?


The project is being developed cooperatively by the Upper Yellowstone Watershed Group, Institute for Tourism and Recreational Research at University of Montana, and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, along with the active involvement of river stakeholders and the general public.


Where is the survey being conducted?


For the 2020 season the survey attention will focus on the Emigrant to Carter’s Bridge reach of the river, which is the most consistently used section of the river. Survey teams will also being collecting use data on the Gardiner-to-Emigrant and Carter’s Bridge-to-Mayor’s Landing reaches.


How will the data be collected?


The data will be collected using remote sensing technology, direct observations along the river and at Fishing Access Sites (FAS), and polling of river users at FAS locations. Participation in the survey will be voluntary. FAS locations will be randomly selected for polling throughout the summer.


When is the survey being conducted?


The data collection will take place from July through September 2020. The 2020 season data will be analyzed, shared with the stakeholders and public, and planned for continuation in 2021 and 2022. We understand that the 2020 season was being disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and will take that into account in the analysis.


What will the survey data be used for?


The project is an effort to gather empirical data that in turn can provide a baseline for the level of overall recreational use, how use moves up and down the river seasonally, and where use levels are concentrated at any one time. Interviews will provide a sense of user expectations and experience. What remains to be seen is 1) what the data shows; and 2) what issues/management responses does the data point to, if any.


Is this survey similar to the one recently conducted on the Madison River?


No. At present little useful data exists on the level and nature of recreational use on the Upper Yellowstone River. Establishing a basic understanding of the level and nature of use is the sole purpose of the Upper Yellowstone project, and it is totally unrelated to ongoing regulatory efforts on the Madison. The project methodology has been tailored to reflect the present conditions and future needs of the Yellowstone.


Is this being done to create new regulations?


No. This project is not being undertaken as a result of any planned effort by the state or other entity to formulate any new regulations and policy changes. It is intended to gather baseline information (who, what, where, to what extent) that will be shared with all river stakeholders.


Can I take the survey even if I don’t use the river?


Not at this time. Currently we are polling users as they put in or take out on a river trip. We are interested in ascertaining a user's thoughts and attitude regarding the river experience while they are in that moment.


How can I help?


We are always looking for volunteers to help us collect data; this season that will involve helping to collect direct observations of river use. If you live near the river or are willing to spend some time at a public river access gathering empirical data, we could use your help. A couple hours on any given day, depending on your schedule, is all that it would take. Email to get further information on how you can volunteer.

Conceptual Planning Tool

This is a proof of concept tool for the river recreational users on the Upper Yellowstone to determine which portions of the river are in high use, and plan their trip according. The user can look at today's information or data from the past in order to plan a trip in the future (e.g. what access points are least used on Labor Day weekend. Or, citizens could decide to vote and limit usage. Bottom line, you can't manage what you can't measure. Currently, we are only real-time monitoring one location on the river, but in the future, each fishing access site can be monitored, providing a holistic view of current use and historical trends. This same technology could be used to monitor trail usage, for example, among other things. For more information on this technology, and how it can be used for conservation efforts see

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