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Warming waters threatening Montana's blue ribbon trout fishing

MT River.PNG
Posted at 1:43 PM, Sep 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-19 15:54:23-04

BILLINGS - Rising summer temperatures and warming water temperatures are strengthening fears that climate change could take a big toll on the state's trout population.

Montana is the unofficial fly fishing capitol of the U.S and the renowned streams and rivers bring in a gigantic boost to the state's economy.

The fishing in Yellowstone County and the surrounding areas have been "great this year" according to Rich Romersa, owner of the East Rose Bud Fly Shop.

"The high water that we had with the flooding actually invigorated the fisheries. Water temperature in our area is really appropriate, healthy and frankly, our water right now is as good as we could ask for the middle part of September," said Romersa.

He’s fished every week since the river levels have allowed and mentioned that it’s a "breath of fresh air compared to last year" and the amount of water is a big reason why.

"If you have a low water year the fish aren’t as healthy and they’re not as robust. Some people will choose not to fish because they don’t want to put trout through that. But except for last year, we’re actually in a pretty good run as far as temperatures. And like I said this year has been excellent after the water levels came down and we could back on the river after the flooding," added Romersa.

Fishing is a way of life in Montana, and it generates a substantial amount of money for the state every year.

"Montana FWP has estimated that fishing in Montana brings about a billion dollars per year to the state’s economy. We can partition that roughly into what happens in rivers and streams and what happens in lakes, and we assume most of the fishing in the rivers and streams is trout fishing so, about three-quarters of that and that's about 750 million dollars per year that is coming in from trout fishing across the state," said US Geological Survey (USGS) ecologist Timothy Cline.

A new study conducted by the USGS, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, and the University of Montana suggests a third of the state’s waters may be unsuitable for trout by the year 2080. The study examined trout fisheries from 1983 to 2017 and revealed that warmer temps and lower flows have forced anglers to adapt to the ever-changing conditions.

"We made an estimate of the potential losses of trout habitat into the future and based on the temperature, we expect to lose about 30 -35% of what is currently trout habitat," added Cline.

If the projections of 30%-to-35% loss are true, it comes at a heavy cost. However, Cline says these numbers are based upon "projections of where, what and when people will be fishing down the road". Those are things "we can’t 100% predict" he said.

"It’s about $190 million per year in today’s dollars. That’s about 35% of today’s fishing economy in Montana. So, it’s a big number but, I like to think of that as a pretty worst-case scenario," said Cline.

However, it's already making an impact in certain areas of the state.

"There have been some rivers in the southwestern part of the state that have been particularly challenged by drought in the last 20 years or so. And we see pretty strong negative effects of drought there. Fewer people are fishing in those rivers during the summers," Cline noted.

It's a trend they hope to reverse and one he hopes the state can avoid in the future.

"Maintaining as many different pieces of the puzzle on the landscape in terms of what supports our trout fisheries is important. Because it allows people to adapt to shifting conditions, changing conditions, and more variable conditions in the future," Cline concluded.