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Montana fishing advocates, businesses call for river preservation task force

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Posted at 4:10 PM, Oct 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-13 18:10:44-04

MISSOULA — For those wanting the state to take more action to preserve coldwater fisheries in southwestern Montana rivers, this summer demonstrated the need. But the governor has yet to heed their call for a task force to tackle the problem.

This week, a panel of four advocates for Montana’s rivers, fish, and the fishing industry discussed the effect of this summer’s heat and drought on streamflows and fish and suggested some ideas the state needs to consider to maintain Montana’s reputation as a blue-ribbon trout fishing destination.

“In our area, you can pretty much predict what kind of summer you’re going to have based upon the first two weeks of June. The first two weeks of June, if we get any precipitation or it remains cool, we’ll make it through August,” said Mike Bias, Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana executive director. “Well, the first two weeks of June were wicked hot. Everything was showing that it was going to be a tough year, and then, low and behold, it was.”

The first of four heat domes moved over Montana on June 26, baking many areas with close to 100-degree temperatures. With average temperatures 2 to 3 degrees above normal across most of the state, it was a record-breaking summer for heat. Meanwhile, most cities received precipitation amounts that were well below average, causing the drought to deepen over the summer.

Bias said it hadn’t been this hot in 41 years. But it was the drought that made rivers shrink early in the season. As levels dropped and waters warmed, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks had to use hoot-owl restrictions starting in June to limit fishing to morning hours when waters are cooler.

That affected fishing guides, Bias said, who ended up having to travel, increasing the pressure on other rivers. So when FWP managers put hoot-owl restrictions on the Yellowstone River, they also closed the upper Madison just to keep that river from being over-used, Bias said.

When the Bitterroot River was finally restricted later in the summer, the Blackfoot River – one of the few rivers that stayed up due to adequate snowpack – was inundated with people from all over southwest Montana.

None of this helps dwindling brown trout populations. Brown trout are nonnative and do better than native trout in warmer water. But the U.S. Geological Survey determined that low flows are causing the problem for brown trout.

As the weather cools, the rivers do too, and hoot owl restrictions are slowly removed. But rivers like the Big Hole are still running very low.

The situation wasn’t helped by irrigation decisions. The Beaverhead River level was up in June due to water released from the Clark Canyon Reservoir. But once irrigators didn’t need water in the fall, the dam was shut down.

“They went from somewhere around 300 cubic feet per second out of the dam to 27 in early September. It was a seemingly instantaneous closure of the tap, which led to issues,” Bias said. “Rivers aren’t managed well for fish – they’re managed well for potatoes and hay. Which is unfortunate, because it’s one of the best fisheries in the state.”

Biologist David Stagliano, Montana Biological Survey consultant, pulled some temperature and streamflow data for the Big Hole and Smith rivers to show that rivers this year were both lower and warmer than during the previous two droughts, one in the late ‘80s and the other in the early 2000s. The Smith River closed earlier than ever, being too low to float by mid-June.

“In the Smith River, 19 days starting in late June (had water temperatures) got above 76 degrees. That is unacceptable for a trout fishery that is a permitted scenic wonder in the state,” Stagliano said. “It couldn’t be overcome. We couldn’t get irrigators to stop irrigating, and FWP said it wouldn’t help that much if we called on the water rights. That made me very sad. This next couple years is going to affect fish in the Smith for many years to come.”

sunset during fire and smoke
With average temperatures 2º to 3º above normal across most of the state, it was a record-breaking summer for heat.

Stagliano said that droughts usually last two to three years, so Montana could be looking at another couple of summers like this one. Coldwater fisheries can’t withstand that, Stagliano said, which means the fishing industry could crumble.

Obviously, as droughts worsen, water use becomes more contentious as more people and activities make demands on what limited water remains. Graham Coppes, a Missoula water rights attorney, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers board member, said he saw a notable increase in conflict this year as users flocked to rivers and water rights owners tried to stop others from using nearby water.

Unfortunately, Montana’s system of older water rights having priority doesn’t allow for much flexibility in trying to redistribute water during times of scarcity. It pits one side against the other, Coppes said.

“Tension is increasing among the various players in the water quantity world, whether that is farms and ranches or a municipality and growing demands for increased service areas for residential uses of water,” Coppes said.

Coppes suggested that FWP develop more projects to acquire instream flow water rights. He likened it to conservation easements; the state provides money to buy conservation easements for hunters so a similar pot of money should be made available to buy water rights that agricultural producers are willing to get rid of.

The panel had several suggestions for ways the state could improve the situation for everyone although the fairest solution “demands everyone taking a haircut,” said Upper Missouri Waterkeeper spokesman Guy Alsentzer.

“We need to do more with less. Given the diffuse amount of pressure that we’re seeing in terms of not just use of our rivers but use of water generally and more people on the landscape, that calls into question what is the carrying capacity of these watersheds?” Alsentzer said. “We need to use the best available science to inform how we’re paying it forward.”

To hammer out some compromises and find the best science, a coalition of organizations represented in the panel and flyfishing businesses are asking Gov. Greg Gianforte to form a Cold Water Fisheries Task Force. The task force would include representatives of federal and state agencies, tribes, local governments, fly-fishing businesses, and agriculture and conservation groups. Around 1,000 people have signed the letter.

“Looking at ways to share the burden is probably in our best interest,” Coppes said. “If there was the political will to convene this task force, we have to be looking across the board at the problem.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at