A new report says Park County lost hundreds of thousands of dollars because of the state’s closure of the Yellowstone River in response to a massive die-off of mountain whitefish in the river.

Preliminary figures in the report, which came from the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation, say the closure of the popular stream cost Park County between $360,000 and $524,000, based on past spending data from non-resident visitors. The report said that was the equivalent of between five and eight full-time jobs.

Jeremy Sage, the author of the report, said the impact to the state as a whole might be minimal, but the impact to the county over that short time period is significant.

“It could be hitting some businesses very hard,” Sage said.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks decided to close the river on Aug. 19, after confirming that a parasite outbreak killed thousands of whitefish. The initial closure spanned 183 miles of river from the border with Yellowstone National Park to the town of Laurel and included every tributary stream that entered the river through there.

Poor river conditions were blamed for the kill, as river temperatures hovered near 70 degrees and flows neared historic lows. In early September as river conditions improved and as fish mortality slowed, FWP began lifting parts of the original closure. The final reopening came on Friday, as state officials decided to reopen the river from Emigrant to Pine Creek, the last section that was closed.

But the initial closure took a toll on the businesses that rely on the stream for their income. The report says that about 31 percent of jobs in Park County depend on tourism, a large portion related to the Yellowstone River.

Sage estimated the total loss by looking at what visitors had spent in the past and guessing whether they would still visit the state or not. He came up with two estimates — one he termed “high impact” that assumed most people canceled their trips, and one called “low impact” that assumed that people still came but found other things to do. The lower impact estimate neared $360,000 and the higher impact one was close to $524,000.

But Leslie Feigel, the executive director of the Livingston Area Chamber of Commerce, said the numbers Sage produced were too low and that the study focused too much on the losses suffered by river guides.

“We had impact in more ways than just floating,” Feigel said.

Feigel said hotels, bars and restaurants all felt the pinch, too, and that many people lost jobs. At least three businesses in Livingston alone had to close up shop because of the closure, she said, and one store she knew of lost around $5,800 a week in business.

She also criticized the study for making too many references to the impact to the entire state.

“This was not something that affected Montana as a whole,” she said. “It’s more of a local-area level.”

Feigel is working on gathering her own data on the impact of the closure. She hopes to have that collected by the end of the month.

Some businesses in the region took advantage of federal loans meant to help them weather the effects of the closure. Data from the Small Business Administration said five businesses received about $248,500 in federal aid. One of those businesses was in Stillwater County. The other four were in Park County.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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