Proposed changes to state and federal pollution controls would wreck Montana's hunting and fishing heritage, a group of conservation advocates argued on Wednesday.
"Our hunting and fishing traditions are too important. They define who we are in the state," David Dittloff of the National Wildlife Federation said in a conference call. He claimed moves to prohibit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating mercury and greenhouse gases before the U.S. Senate and similar bills in the Montana Legislature would hurt fish and game populations.
Rising mercury levels in game fish have made it hazardous to eat many of Montana's most popular species, according to Montana State University nursing professor Sandra Kuntz. While some mercury contamination can occur from natural sources like forest fires, Kuntz said other studies have found some mercury in U.S. waters comes from Chinese coal-fired power plants. In the United States, coal plants contribute between 50 percent and 75 percent of environmental mercury pollution, she said.
"It bioaccumulates in the food chain, and winds up especially in larger predatory fish, like the lake trout in Flathead Lake," Kuntz said. "You don't have to be living next to a fossil fuel plant. It travels great distances, sometimes over oceans, before depositing."
Because there is no way to clean or cook mercury out of contaminated fish, the only way to reduce its presence is to scrub it out of pollution sources like power plants, Dittloff said. The EPA recently released stringent new guidelines on how much mercury is allowed in airborne pollution, but federal and state lawmakers are attempting to roll back those limits, he said.
Pelah Hoyt, the former board president of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, said growing mercury levels in wild fish threatened her chance to pass her outdoors heritage to her new twin boys.
"As a breastfeeding mom, that makes me really worried," Hoyt said. "I just don't know what's going to be safe for our boys to do. Is it going to be safe for my kids to eat the first fish that they catch?"
River lovers have noticed their fish stocks declining for the past 50 years, according to Bill Geer of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. For example, the Yellowstone River has seen a 17 percent decline in spring runoff and a 20 percent decline in late summer water flows. At the same time, the water temperature in the Yellowstone has climbed.
"That's really stressing out the trout populations," Geer said. "Below Billings, we're seeing small-mouth bass in the river, because the flows are down and water is warmer. Those fish have moved up 40 miles to the Reedpoint area, where they've invaded cutthroat trout habitat. If we go another 20 or 30 years, we could experience a 50-percent decline in native trout species."
Geer said the immediate effect of pollution-related climate change was to hurt the availability and timing of water supplies in Montana. In addition to fish problems, continued poor snow years would keep elk out of reach of hunters and shrink habitat for mule deer and waterfowl.
"There needs to be a demand by the public that we do have a growing problem," Geer said. "Some folks deny climate change exists, but among hunters and anglers, they're seeing the change. They see it's affecting their hunting and fishing, and they wonder what are we going to do about it?"