Most people haven’t experienced all the effects that climate change is having on Montana’s waterways, but fly-fishing guides and outfitters, who are out nearly every day, say they have seen serious negative impacts on the fragile ecosystem in the past decade.
They've seen more dead fish than usual, due to things like drastically higher summer and fall water temperatures. They've noticed reduced winter snowpack that melts earlier than usual and leads to bone-dry creeks in August.
They've noticed non-native species like brown trout invading areas as bull trout populations decline due to warming waters. And they've seen the expansion of parasites and diseases that kill off tens of thousands of fish, which harms the fly-fishing and tourism industries.
And of course, they have been affected by earlier “hoot owl” fishing closures on more and more bodies of water.
These are just some of the topics discussed at a meeting last week at the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks headquarters in Missoula with the local chapter of the National Wildlife Federation and more than a dozen local fishing guides. Their goal was to talk about how climate change is affecting Montana’s outdoor recreation industry, which generates roughly $6 billion in annual spending every year in the state.
“Currently, there’s a lot of threats to our fisheries in relation to climate change,” said Alec Underwood, the Montana Wildlife Federation’s climate change outreach assistant. “In today’s society, we often think about what’s going to happen next week, next month or next year, but looking to the future is important. I want kids to have the same opportunities to fish as I did.”
Chris Clancy, a longtime fisheries biologist with FWP, gave a presentation about how he and his colleagues have documented an alarming increase in the number of nonnative brown trout in the upper reaches of tributaries that feed into the Bitterroot River, places where native bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout are on the decline because of higher average stream temperatures.
“Temperatures are getting hotter across the region, especially over the last 30 years,” Clancy said. “That affects streamflows. We’ve observed trends for August flows for the Northern Rockies. Streams have experienced a 21 percent average decline during August in this portion of the country. We’re seeing low flows in August largely because of climate change. The snowpack doesn’t last as long. It’s declining in April where it used to not decline, and there is more frequent flooding in winter or early spring.”
The effect goes beyond fly-fishing guides and trout. In 2014, the FWP documented $907 million in angling-related expenditures in Montana. Of that, $64 million was spent in Missoula County. Fishing draws tourists here and is a major source of economic activity, according to Underwood.
“The guiding and outfitting community is an important part of our economy,” Underwood said.
He said the meeting was held in part to connect younger guides with more veteran guides who have seen more changes over their lifetimes. Underwood wanted to have the group brainstorm ideas to see how they can increase public discourse on the issue, and work together to find solutions.
“We’re at a crossroads,” said longtime Bozeman fishing guide Sean Blaine. “This isn’t business as usual. I’ve seen a lot of changes. We are at an inflection point in our industry. We’re in an industry with declining resources and increasing numbers. We are the gatekeepers. We are the spokespeople for our industry.”
Clancy and Underwood showed a series of slides that illustrated data collected by hydrologists, biologists and other scientists in the region over the last several decades. The message was clear, according to Underwood.
“Across the West there’s a serious trend of declining snowpack and that ultimately leads to a change in stream discharge,” Underwood said. “Last year, we thought we were doing fine with the snowpack, but we had some of the earliest hoot owl closures we’ve ever had and on the most water bodies we’ve ever had, 22. There is less discharge later in the summer, and that leads to higher temperatures.”
Clancy said the debate over whether climate change is real or is caused by humans should be over.
“It’s not bunk,” he said. “That’s just a political argument, not a scientific one.”
He said that a 2010 National Academy of Scientists study showed that 908 climate scientists who have 20 or more published papers on the subject – 97 percent – are convinced by the evidence of human-induced climate change.
“Some people think brown trout expansion is cool, but from a native fish standpoint it’s not so cool,” he said. “Bull trout populations are pulling back as brown trout expand. The data seems to indicate that browns are just filling a niche because bull trout can’t tolerate water temperatures over about 60 degrees. Bull trout by far, more than any other trout species, need cold water to thrive.”
Clancy said he and his staff have found brown trout in streams the past few years where they’ve never been recorded before.
“They are getting up into areas and invading areas that are native fish strongholds,” Clancy said. “And forest fires are increasing water temperatures.”
Eddy Olwell, a longtime fishing guide in the Bitterroot, said the issue isn’t a lost cause. He said fishing guides can help by working on habitat restoration projects to increase the amount of vegetation covering streams to reduce water temperatures in the summer. He said guides also have to be careful not to fish lower stretches of river on hot days and to use barbless hooks.
“People are not aware of the risks and threats facing our resources and we need to do a better job of that,” he said. “I see a lot of guides who don’t get the connection between the health of resources and the health of the rivers. We have to pressure our peers and get them involved.”
Underwood said that fighting climate change should be a nonpartisan issue, and he urged everyone with a stake in the outdoor recreation industry to “call their senators or congressmen when they make a stupid decision.”
“There may be threats, but together we can make change happen,” he said. “You guys are important. You have a strong voice and influence.”