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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Climate change impacts Northwest fish, wildlife and local outdoor economies

Fly fishers release a brown trout caught in the Big Hole River of Montana. (Rich Landers)
David Erickson Missoulian

If fishing opportunities dry up in states with cool freshwater fisheries, so will tourists’ dollars and the jobs they support, according to a wildlife conservation group’s report.

Outdoor recreation in Montana alone generates $1.5 billion in wages and salaries, $5.8 billion in consumer spending, $403 million in state and local tax revenue, and supports 64,000 jobs, according to surveys conducted by the Outdoor Industry Association.

Commercial and private fishing, which are vital to the region’s economy, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change on the state’s ecology and wildlife.

For example, the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, a prized game fish that attracts large numbers of tourists, is highly susceptible to warming waters and the invasive species that follow.

The pattern of warming temperatures is a recipe for disaster.

The National Wildlife Federation recently published a report, “Wildlife in Hot Water: America’s Waterways and Climate Change,” which outlines many ways that climate change is affecting wetlands, rivers and lakes and the fish and wildlife that inhabit them.

The report was released just weeks after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled its Clean Power Plan, an effort to reduce carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants. About 25 states already are lining up to protest the rules.

Hunters, anglers and wildlife enthusiasts across the U.S. are seeing the impacts of climate change and many are advocating for changes in energy policy, said Dave Dittloff, the federation’s Missoula-based regional representative

“Climate change is rapidly altering the Earth’s water cycles in significant ways, and in turn impacting the fish and wildlife that depend on them,” he said, introducing several other speakers and scientists in a conference call.

Fishing guides are on the front lines of how climate change is affecting Montana’s outdoor recreation industry, said Dan Vermillion, the owner of a fly-fishing business in Livingston and chairman of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission.

“We have had major river closures in southwestern Montana pretty much one out of every two years, sometimes two out of every three years,” he said.

“This year, for the first time, rivers were closed down the second week of July,” he said, noting that ‘hoot owl’ restrictions prohibited angling after 2 p.m. to give fish a break during the hotter times the day. The restrictions affected the Bitterroot, Blackfoot, Big Hole, Beaverhead and other streams.

“As an outfitter and a person who is deeply dependent on the flow of tourists to Montana, years like this are getting pretty difficult,” he said.

Outfitters and anglers are forced to crowd onto the few rivers that aren’t closed and consolidate their trips in the early summer months, increasing the impacts of human pressure on fisheries.

As the waters warm, nonnative species are able to move higher up streams into the last bastions where highly susceptible cold-water species have been able to survive and stay genetically pure.

“This one spooks me the most,” Vermillion said. “We caught several smallmouth bass on the Yellowstone this year. That is directly attributed to warmer waters, which is clearly linked to climate change.”

“You can catch rainbows and browns in Missouri and smallmouth bass in Wisconsin, but the only place in the world you can catch Yellowstone cutthroat is in the Yellowstone drainage,” Vermillion said. “They are losing their genetic purity and the population is threatened by predation.”

State fisheries experts are building barriers in an attempt to protect genetically pure strains of cutthroat in certain drainages.

The potential for protections under the Endangered Species Act would have serious economic implications, he said.

Clint Muhlfield, a research ecologist and a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, says the Crown of the Continent region is North America’s “water tower” and it is drying up.

“This area had 150 glaciers in 1850 and now 25 remain,” he said. “They are all predicted to be gone by 2030. Permanent snow and ice is disappearing. The flow regime is changing.

“We are having an earlier spring runoff, 2-3 weeks earlier than average, and a reduction of spring runoff in terms of peak flows, leading to reductions in rivers.

Carter Johnson, a professor of ecology at South Dakota State University, said the 100-million-square-kilometer prairie pothole region that includes portions of Montana, the eastern Dakotas and south-central Canada is experiencing less rainfall and warmer air temperatures.

“It’s nicknamed the ‘duck factory’ because it produces about 60 percent of the ducks in North America,” he said. “The most vulnerable parts are in eastern Montana. It’s a boon for waterfowl production, maybe one year out of 10, but the rest of the time it’s too dry for waterfowl production.”

He said climatologists are looking at a dire situation for waterfowl and other wetland-adapted species that occur in that region.”

Many outfitters and guides are engaged with the climate-change issue, Vermillion said, but he would love to see them become more active about pressing for an energy policy that reduces greenhouse gases.

Vermillion said he interacts with many conservative friends, family members and clients who are resistant to what is causing climate change.

“They all recognize that something is occurring, and they all recognize that the climate is very different from where they were 15 years ago,” he said. “Where the agreement tends to break down is A, who is responsible; and B, if there is anything we can do about it.”

Tourists spend at least $343 million in Montana on fishing every year, he said, and he’d like to see the industry keep growing.

But he said most Montanans aren’t likely to pay serious attention to climate change until ranchers aren’t able to irrigate fields.

“My family holds very old water rights, and in the last three years we’ve had to make closures or calls on water. Drought impacts yields on people’s fields, it impacts cattle prices and feed prices, and impacts the agricultural industry, which is heavily water dependent.”

Agriculture is Montana’s largest industry, and Vermillion said it is just as susceptible to climate change as the outdoor recreation industry.

Regular citizens have an opportunity to become involved because the Clean Power Plan has given states wide latitude to find ways to reduce greenhouse emissions, Dittloff said.

“It isn’t all doom and gloom,” he said. “There are ways we can address the issue.”