GREAT FALLS – The cost of unabated climate change in Montana could be 11,000 jobs and $281 million in labor earnings by 2050, according to a new report that attempts to quantify its economic impacts on the state's outdoor economy, including hunting, fishing, skiing and snowmobiling.
The report, released last week, was completed by Donovan Power Consulting, a Montana-based economic consulting firm headed by the former head of the economics department at the University of Montana, at the request of the Montana Wildlife Federation.
It's called "Economic Impact of Climate Change in Montana," and it predicts warmer, drier summers will lead to increased wildfires and reduced snowpack with impacts projected not just for fish and wildlife habitat but also the people who make their living off the the state's land and water.
"I'm not going to claim to have experience on what exactly we need to do, but this is an issue that needs action," MWF Executive Director Dave Chadwick said on why the state's largest and oldest conservation organization, which with 20 affiliate clubs, commissioned the report.
Chadwick's hope is that the report contributes to a productive discussion in Montana on what can be done to protect the state's outdoor economy.
"The political rhetoric around climate change in recent years has made it difficult for a lot of people to speak up about this issue," he said.
Among the report's findings:
• Montana's traditional archery hunting season from September to early October and rifle hunting season from late October to late November will be warmer and drier, and big game will move into the high country and stay longer to avoid higher temperatures because snowfall will come later.
• Hotter, longer and drier summers, combined with less snowpack and earlier runoff of snowmelt, will lead to lower and warmer stream flows in late spring and summer, leading to more frequent and longer restrictions on fishing to protect fish from heat stress.
• Ski areas will face shorter seasons and significantly degraded snow conditions because it will rain more in the winter.
• Montana faces the possibility of 33 percent fewer angling days and the loss of 1,800 jobs and $49 million in labor earnings if current changes in temperature remain unchanged, the report projects.
• Snow sports could decline by 33 percent with the loss of 1,500 lost jobs and $37 million in lost labor earnings.
• Big-game hunting will see a 15 percent decline resulting in 1,600 lots jobs and $39 million in lost labor earnings.
Report author Thomas Power, a research professor and professor emeritus at UM, said the report is the first he is aware of that pieces together projections by climate scientists and existing economic information to extrapolate how climate change could harm the state's outdoor economy.
He completed it with his son, Donovan, a glaciologist who spent several seasons in Antarctica measuring movements of the west Antarctic ice sheet.
"The purpose of the analysis we've provided is just to remind Montanans we have some skin in the game, that if our leaders at the local, state and federal level don't have the political skill and guts to hammer out a reliable agreement among the nations of the world, we're going to suffer very serious consequences," Power said.
The report comes on the heels of an accord in Paris that commits countries to lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
Power said the firm looked at economic data that already exists on how fires, low water flows or less snowfall have influenced the behavior of skiers, anglers and visitors and the resulting economic impact to businesses that serve them.
Then it looked at global climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and "downscaling" models being used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The downscaling models focus on specific geographic areas.
The climate change projections were overlaid with past economic data to come up with economic loss projections related to lost skiing, visitation and angling days.
"Climate change to behavior impacts in the past to estimated impacts," said Power, explaining the research.
Scott Nicolarson, owner of Missoula-based Topwater Fly Fishing Outfitters, says rising temperatures already seem to be affecting his family-run, one-boat fishing guide service that takes clients fishing on rivers such as the Bitterroot, Blackfoot, Clark Fork, Missouri, Yellowstone and Gallatin.
"The 30 percent decline in revenue was devastating," Nicolarson said of revenue he lost in 2015 because of low stream flows.
Over the past few decades, he said, there's been a shift of patterns of precipitation, stream flow, insect hatches and temperatures.
The result has been a shift in the window of productive fishing to mid-June to mid-July, with less fishing in mid-July through August, he said.
This year was a good example of the change, Nicolarson said. In western Montana, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks enforced stream-closure restrictions in early July because of warm temperatures to protect the health of native trout.
It was the earliest so-called "hoot owl" restrictions had ever been implemented in western Montana, the report says.
Loss of business for angling outfitters also will result in lost business for other sectors, including air, lodging and food, said Nicolarson, adding that he was forced to call clients to cancel trips this year.
"We're losing our mid-July through August window for fishing," he said.
Bridger Bowl, a ski area in Bozeman, recently purchased full-page advertisements in four newspapers promoting the importance of climate change awareness and advocacy for protecting winters in Montana.
"Is your favorite sport melting away?" the ad says.
It asks readers about their risk tolerance when it comes to losing winter sports – 1 percent, 30 percent, 50 percent? It urges readers to contact their elected officials about the issue.
"Snow is the ski industry," said Doug Wales, director of marketing at Bridger Bowl in Bozeman.
The ski area has 200,000 ski visits annually and employees 350 with a yearly payroll of $4 million.
Many ski resorts are making an effort raise awareness about climate change with both guests and policymakers, he said.
"It's gone from kind of being a nicety and insurance to a regular practice," Wales said of snow the ski area makes to supplement natural snow. "I've seen that change over the last 25 years."
Wales says he doesn't have empirical evidence, but he's seen demonstrable difference in the amount of snow the ski area receives at the base of the mountain at 6,100 feet compared to the amount of snow received at 6,600 feet.
That's a concern in light of modeling showing a rise in temperature in the future.
"It becomes more of an issue because it does require cold temperatures to make good snow," Wales said.
Making projections on climate change and economic impacts is difficult, Power acknowledged.
But discussion of public policies aimed at reducing human releases of greenhouse gases tends to focus on the economic costs associated with adopting those policies without accompanying discussion of the economic benefits of the change in public policies, he added.
He called that kind of analysis "wildly inaccurate."
The report looked at the 42,000 jobs and $1 billion in labor earnings attributed to hunting, fishing, park visits, wildlife watching, skiing and snowmobiling, Chadwick said.
Montana will see a temperature rise of 4 to 5 degrees by 2055, resulting in warmer, drier summers, increased wildfires and reduced snowpack, Donovan Power said.
Overall, Donovan Power said, the state will be warmer in the winter and summer and a little warmer in the spring and fall.
There will be 20 to 40 days fewer days when the temperature drops below 32 degrees, he said.