Montana’s Famed Trout Under Threat as Drought Intensifies - NY Times

"The state is imposing more restrictions on fishing this year as the combination of extreme conditions, including low river levels, fish die-offs and the crush of anglers, poses long-term problems.
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    Fly fishing in Rock Creek, a tributary of the Clark Fork River in western Montana, on Wednesday.

    Fly fishing in Rock Creek, a tributary of the Clark Fork River in western Montana, on Wednesday.Credit...Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times
By Jim Robbins
July 23, 2021, 10:21 a.m. ET
HELENA, Mont. — Few places in the world rival Montana’s fly fishing, and the state’s cold, clear mountain streams are renowned for their large populations of trout, especially the rainbow and brown.

But this is a drought year, and a confluence of extreme conditions now threatens the state’s legendary waters. Higher temperatures early in the year, worryingly low river levels, fish die-offs and pressure from the crush of anglers yearning to recapture a year lost to the pandemic have swirled into a growing crisis.
This week the state announced a slate of new restrictions, including outright closures, for some of the top trout streams.
And a new coalition of businesses, fly fishing guides and environmentalists warned that the severe drought may not be a temporary problem and that the state’s fisheries could be nearing collapse.


The coalition, which includes Orvis, the fly fishing company, and the clothing manufacturer Patagonia, sent Gov. Greg Gianforte a letter Wednesday seeking the creation of a task force to address the decline of the fisheries.
“Between early season fish kills, unnaturally warm water temperatures and low trout numbers, it’s an all hands on deck moment,” said John Arnold, owner of Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig, along the Missouri River, one of the state’s premier fisheries.

The coalition said that the conditions not only threatened the fisheries, but also would be devastating for businesses. “If water quality in our rivers continues to decline, and our rivers themselves dry up, these negative changes will also tank our state’s robust outdoor economy that directly depends on upon vibrant cold water fisheries,” the group stated in its letter.
“This is a really unique, ecologically speaking, part of the world,” said Guy Alsentzer, the executive director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. “These rivers are really hurting and they need cold, clean water.”
The crisis is occurring as the state was just beginning to recover from the pandemic, with tourists and fishing enthusiasts returning in large numbers. Anglers of all kinds spend nearly $500 million a year in Montana, according to the American Sportfishing Association.



In addition to low river levels and even dry sections of some small streams, dead trout have been found floating in rivers around the state, a sight that in other seasons was rare. And there has been a mysterious, steep decline in one of the most sought-after fish, brown trout, over the last several years in southwest Montana.


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A sunset tinted by wildfire smoke over the Clark Fork River.

A sunset tinted by wildfire smoke over the Clark Fork River.Credit...Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times


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Dead trout in the Bitterroot River in Montana.

Dead trout in the Bitterroot River in Montana.Credit...Wade Fellin
Trout thrive in water between 45 and 60 degrees. Temperatures in some rivers have hit the low-70s much earlier than usual. At those temperatures the fish are lethargic because there is less oxygen in the water and they quit feeding; the stress of being caught by fishers in that weakened state can kill them. Eighty degrees can be lethal to trout.
Montana’s rivers and streams are wild trout fisheries, which means that unlike in most states, rivers there are not stocked with hatchery-reared trout. If populations crash, the state’s wild trout would have to rebound on their own, which could take years or might not happen at all.
Low flows and warm temperatures are affecting sport fishing across the West, from California to Colorado. On the Klamath River in Northern California, the Iron Gate Fish Hatchery could not, for the first time in its 55-year history, stock the river with young hatchery-reared salmon and steelhead because extremely low flows and warmer water temperatures have increased infections from C. shasta, a parasite.
Utah has doubled the allowable limit for fishers because low water levels are expected to kill many fish in the streams. In Colorado, state officials asked people not to fish a 120-mile-long stretch of the Colorado River in the north-central region because of low river levels and warmer water.



“The water temperatures have been above 70 degrees for multiple days in a row,” said Travis Duncan, a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “And there is a potential for more closures as we get further along in the season.”
On Tuesday, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks imposed “hoot owl” restrictions on the Missouri River, one of the most popular trout fishing sites in the state, between Helena and Great Falls because of warm water temperatures. The rule bans fishing after 2 p.m. (The term “hoot owl restrictions” stems from the early days of the timber industry. Loggers work early in the mornings of late summer, when it’s cooler, because the forests are dry and that increases the risk of chain saws or other equipment sparking a fire. Loggers often heard owls during their early morning shifts.)
Although restrictions are often put in place at some point in the summer season, this year is unusual.
“From what we know historically, this is unprecedented in the extent” of limits that have been imposed, said Eileen Ryce, the administrator for the state’s fisheries division.
Compounding the situation here is the decline over several years in brown trout populations in the southwestern part of the state, including the Big Hole, Ruby, Yellowstone, Madison and Beaverhead Rivers, some of the top destinations for fly fishers.


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Fisheries technicians for the Yurok Tribe counted dead chinook salmon pulled from a trap in the lower Klamath River in Weitchpec, Calif., last month.

Fisheries technicians for the Yurok Tribe counted dead chinook salmon pulled from a trap in the lower Klamath River in Weitchpec, Calif., last month.Credit...Nathan Howard/Associated Press


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A sign advised fishing rules on the Bitterroot River on Wednesday.

A sign advised fishing rules on the Bitterroot River on Wednesday.Credit...Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times
This year on the Big Hole River, for example, on one of the most popular stretches, a May census found 400 brown trout per mile, down from 1,800 in 2014. The Beaverhead River has dropped to 1,000 from 2,000 brown trout per mile. And those counts were conducted early in the season, before the onset of this summer’s extreme conditions. The state is considering long-term restrictions on all of these rivers, which could include release of all brown trout or shutting down fishing in some places.



What, precisely, is causing the decline over such a large regional area of the Upper Missouri River Watershed is stumping experts, especially since brown trout are traditionally a hardy, resilient species, able to handle warmer temperatures. Many attribute the decreases, at least in part, to shifting river conditions caused by climate change.
Oddly enough, an unintended benefit of the raging wildfires in the West has been the smoky skies, which may be keeping the rivers from getting even warmer by reducing the amount of direct sunlight.
Meanwhile, on the Beaverhead and Bitterroot Rivers, anglers have reported seeing fish with large lesions whose cause is still unknown.
Beyond hoot owl limits, those who fish have been asked to rapidly land their catch and carefully and quickly release them, to minimize the stress of handling and reduce the potential for killing them.
Other factors threatening Montana’s trout include agricultural changes.
Ranchers used to primarily flood irrigate their fields, which returned about half the water to the river system. Now many use pivot irrigation systems, which are far more efficient and use nearly all of the water.
“We may have altered groundwater so much that brown trout haven’t been able to adapt,” said Patrick Byorth, the director of Trout Unlimited’s water project for Montana. The group is a nonprofit focused on fisheries.



Water pollution also adds to the problem. Increasing construction near resort areas along the Gallatin River near Yellowstone National Park, for instance, has contributed, with storm water runoff and septic systems sending phosphorus and nitrogen into the Gallatin River, causing algae blooms. The bloom is exacerbated by warmer temperatures and lower flows.
One big question that can’t be answered is whether this is just a bad year, or a part of a more permanent change in the climate, a long-term aridification of the West.
Mr. Arnold, the fly-fishing guide who has worked on the Missouri River for decades, said the decline in trout populations has been occurring over a longer span of time than just this year. “My top guides could put 60 fish in the boat in a day,” he said. “Now half of that would be considered a good day.”
“It’s all climate-change related,” Mr. Arnold said. Twenty years ago, nobody fished in November and March because it was so cold, he recalled. Now they do. “It’s starting to feel like a downward spiral.”


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Water recreation on an unseasonably low Bitterroot River near Missoula on Wednesday.

Water recreation on an unseasonably low Bitterroot River near Missoula on Wednesday.Credit...Tailyr Irvine for The
 

speedbird49

Active Member
The coalition, which includes Orvis, the fly fishing company, and the clothing manufacturer Patagonia, sent Gov. Greg Gianforte a letter Wednesday seeking the creation of a task force to address the decline of the fisheries
Is this the same Patagonia that put out an hour long documentary about the evils of artificial fish hatchery's and messing with nature and what not? I recall a short bit about the dangers of hatchery fish naturalizing and competing with "wild" fish. Color me crazy, but I didn't know the Salmo Trutta of Europe had a native population in Montana that does not in anyway negatively interact with native fish.

(Not trying to advocate for genocide of non native fish, just pointing out some glaring hypocrisy)
 

Mike.Cline

Bozeman, Montana
I really loath the fear mongering aspects of these articles. Everything is doom and gloom with antidotal information completely unbalanced with contrasting information. Things are written as if they are gospel without any contrasting evidence considered. This particular statement, although posed as an unanswered question is a great example.

“One big question that can’t be answered is whether this is just a bad year, or a part of a more permanent change in the climate, a long-term aridification of the West.”

First, it ignores over a century of drought data that clearly shows the cyclic nature of wet years and dry years.
Second, climates have never been static, so the implication that there is some “permanent” change going on is just fear mongering.

The real problem with most of these prognostications is that they are mere predictions without any semblance of realistic, time tested data to back them up. Plus they never have any probability attached to them. Why, because probabilities put prognosticators on the spot. They could be wrong.

I personally don’t know which way our Montana fisheries are headed, but I do know from 48+ years fishing here that there will be good years and bad years 50/50.
 

O' Clarkii Stomias

Active Member
I really loath the fear mongering aspects of these articles. Everything is doom and gloom with antidotal information completely unbalanced with contrasting information. Things are written as if they are gospel without any contrasting evidence considered. This particular statement, although posed as an unanswered question is a great example.

“One big question that can’t be answered is whether this is just a bad year, or a part of a more permanent change in the climate, a long-term aridification of the West.”

First, it ignores over a century of drought data that clearly shows the cyclic nature of wet years and dry years.
Second, climates have never been static, so the implication that there is some “permanent” change going on is just fear mongering.

The real problem with most of these prognostications is that they are mere predictions without any semblance of realistic, time tested data to back them up. Plus they never have any probability attached to them. Why, because probabilities put prognosticators on the spot. They could be wrong.

I personally don’t know which way our Montana fisheries are headed, but I do know from 48+ years fishing here that there will be good years and bad years 50/50.
Spot on!
 

Shad

Active Member
The NYT does tend to over-sensationalize these environmental articles. Heck, they also prognosticate that the next earthquake in the Pacific Northwest will essentially destroy ("liquefy?") Western WA, to provide frame of reference!

That said, a touch of alarmism is probably appropriate for the moment, in MT and everywhere else. Regardless of how cyclical weather and fishing are and have always been, there should be no question that extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and magnitude, and cold water fisheries everywhere are trending down, long-term. Not sure how much can be done to slow or reverse any of this at this point, but failing to acknowledge that things are heading in an unfavorable direction certainly won't help.

So yeah, be concerned, but maybe don't go full NYT just yet will be my MO. I purchased an annual MT license this year, figuring on taking a spring trip and a fall trip. I'm disappointed to say it, but I've decided I should probably skip the fall trip this year. I won't personally harm many fish if I do go (LOL), but I don't want to be just one more tourist loving the place to death in a year like this one. I had decent to good fishing in the spring, but it was kind of slow overall, and while I don't mind catching a handful of 18-inchers in a day, I was a bit worried that I didn't hook a bunch of year-old dinks in the process. Indeed, I think I only hooked two fish under 16" (including whitefish) in three days, with a LOT of double nymphing. Anecdotal, yes, but would seem to indicate very low presence of small fish.

If I thought I could hang, I might ask @Swimmy to take me on one of his "stoke hikes" to find healthy, non-imperiled trout in the high ground, but no way am I doing more than about 8 miles in a day, so I may have to settle for some more SRC or salmon fishing locally. At least with salmon, low numbers are the norm :(.
 

Salmo_g

WFF Supporter
Plus they never have any probability attached to them. Why, because probabilities put prognosticators on the spot.
Mass media cannot use probability because that is statistics. I've reached the conclusion that a majority of Americans can't do math for shit. Therefore, news reports are restricted to about 4th grade arithmetic, or lower. Just as we now have a populace that doesn't "believe" in science (as if science "needs" to be believed in), we appear to have Americans who don't "believe" in math either.

That explains to me why we have news media and elected officials frequently proclaiming that we must do X, Y, or Z to prevent some negative occurrence from "ever" happening again. A high school graduate who has flipped a coin 100 times knows that is impossible; all we can do is employ measures that significantly reduce the "probability" of that negative event from happening again. I'd go on, but the rant gets lengthy, making me a bloviator, as per GT's thread.
 

Charles Sullivan

Active Member
Mass media cannot use probability because that is statistics. I've reached the conclusion that a majority of Americans can't do math for shit. Therefore, news reports are restricted to about 4th grade arithmetic, or lower. Just as we now have a populace that doesn't "believe" in science (as if science "needs" to be believed in), we appear to have Americans who don't "believe" in math either.

That explains to me why we have news media and elected officials frequently proclaiming that we must do X, Y, or Z to prevent some negative occurrence from "ever" happening again. A high school graduate who has flipped a coin 100 times knows that is impossible; all we can do is employ measures that significantly reduce the "probability" of that negative event from happening again. I'd go on, but the rant gets lengthy, making me a bloviator, as per GT's thread.
Truth.
It seems as though no one understands probability at all.
This is why I enjoy fivethirtyeight.com so much. It is one place where probabilities are king.

Go Sox,
cds
 

quilbilly

Big Time Hater
Therefore, news reports are restricted to about 4th grade arithmetic, or lower.
That's probably close, most writing is not greater than 9th grade level as is public speaking.
That's a level where politicians like to speak. Over the years it's been a standard level of speaking, above that level you're alienating or losing a significant portion of your listeners.
There's websites where you paste in your writing and it'll kick out a grade level...
Sad statement for sure, but in an era where a sound bite is all listeners can digest without actually having to think, why do anything else ?
A median American's intelligence isn't all that high, and half are dumber than that, so why bother with a deep dive on any subject matter when a quick surface outline with a bunch of quotes will sell the advertising essential to the media business model ?
 

Swimmy

Well-Known Member
A median American's intelligence isn't all that high, and half are dumber than that, so why bother with a deep dive on any subject matter when a quick surface outline with a bunch of quotes will sell the advertising essential to the media business model ?

And the left has complete control of academia and the teachers' union.

Shocking.
 

SilverFly

Active Member
Mass media cannot use probability because that is statistics. I've reached the conclusion that a majority of Americans can't do math for shit. Therefore, news reports are restricted to about 4th grade arithmetic, or lower. Just as we now have a populace that doesn't "believe" in science (as if science "needs" to be believed in), we appear to have Americans who don't "believe" in math either.

That explains to me why we have news media and elected officials frequently proclaiming that we must do X, Y, or Z to prevent some negative occurrence from "ever" happening again. A high school graduate who has flipped a coin 100 times knows that is impossible; all we can do is employ measures that significantly reduce the "probability" of that negative event from happening again. I'd go on, but the rant gets lengthy, making me a bloviator, as per GT's thread.

I dunno, I'd say the folks running casinos have a pretty firm grasp on probability and statistics.
 

bakerite

Active Member
Check out this article from NASA. https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2881/earths-freshwater-future-extremes-of-flood-and-drought/

and this one:
https://www.cnn.com/2021/07/10/weather/heat-sea-life-deaths-trnd-scn/index.html

On a local level, it has been the hottest summer here I have seen. The ODFW has a history of taking the limits off fish in Thief Valley reservoir as when it is going to go dry, however this year they have also taken imposed those regulations to about 30 miles of the Powder River and the Phillip Reservoir, a first as far as I know. We have had many high temperature records broken this past year. I don't want to be all doom and gloom here, but it seems that science says something unusual is happening.
 

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