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Report: Plastic Pollution 'Widespread' In Montana Waterways

Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
Skye Borden with Environment Montana samples the Yellowstone River in Billings for plastic waste September 12.

A Montana based environmental research group released a report last week that shows evidence of plastic in more than half of Montana's waterways.

The organization also has policy suggestions for ways to change that in the future.

Skye Borden with the Missoula based nonprofit Environment Montana tested samples from 50 fishing access points across the state this summer.

She found tiny bits of plastic in almost 70 percent of those water bodies, like minuscule bits from plastic bags or fishing line.

These are called microplastics.

“And we don’t have a good understanding of just how much that’s altering our landscape or our health, and so certainly I along with many others feel as though a lot more research is needed for us to really, truly understand the full impacts of this problem,” Borden said. 

Borden says research so far suggests microplastics pose a threat to birds and fish. Some plastics contain chemicals. Others are large enough to block animals’ digestive pathways.

Last week’s report isn’t an analysis of effects. Borden calls it a “snapshot” of the presence of microplastics in Montana waters.

The top ten sites with the worst plastic pollution were 40 miles or less from cities.

In the top three were the Big Pine campground on the Clark Fork River outside Missoula, the Little Blackfoot River fishing access site 30 miles from Helena and Yankee Jim on the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley around 35 miles from Bozeman.

Borden says she found zero plastic at several popular sites that she expected to be highly polluted.

“One of the trashiest places I went to was Whitefish [Lake] State Park and that was one of the samples that didn’t have any plastics in the water, so some of it might be just the chance of the sample that I took in that day. Some of it is also possibly impacted by variations in precipitation," Borden said. 

In other words, she’s not sure how much of the microplastics enter rivers through rain versus local fishing and other activities.

Notable for little to no pollution were multiple sites on the Big Hole River and the Flathead River, which is a federally protected Wild and Scenic River. 

Borden says she hopes other organizations will put the resources into bigger, lengthier studies.

Until then, she says cities and governments shouldn’t wait on those results to start putting preventive measures in place. The Environment Montana report suggests policy changes for communities, like phasing out single-use plastic bags and setting plastic reduction goals.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.