Welcome to our series on overcrowding, examining how we got here and where we go next to find new solitude.
Anymore, the picturesque rivers in Montana, the pristine waters of Biscayne Bay, just aren’t the same places that they used to be. Far and wide, the angling world is more aware of itself as a whole than at any previous point in history. With enough money you can book a ticket to just about any notable fishery, armed with flies, locations, maps, guides… enough resources to look like a pro. Then rumors spread, the best of the best climb to a supreme status, held in the highest regard. Grand Bahama, the Henry’s Fork, the Missouri, the White, the Green, Christmas Island, the South Platte, North Platte, the St. Lawrence, etc…
Let’s dig in more closely at my first two examples and explore how these iconic destinations are vulnerable, even flawed icons.
Montana has been grappling with dwindling fish counts all while more and more anglers are exploring and crowding the famous rivers found in the southwestern portion of the state. Like most of the West, snowpack variability, droughts, floods, and aging dam infrastructure have all impacted these Montana streams in recent years, largely thanks to climate change.
Climate change is disrupting the water cycle, starting with the timing of spring runoff. More and more soot, dust, and other dark light absorptive particles have been introduced into the atmosphere from burning carbon, food production, clear-cutting, land development, and other industrial processes. Later these dark particles are deposited on top of snow far from their original source. Once temperatures begin to warm in the spring, the dark dusty particles that fell with or settled upon the snow reduce the reflective surface and cause faster rates of snowmelt. Scientists have documented evidence that human-derived particles are decreasing alpine snow albedo causing earlier spring peak runoff. These effects are seen all across the West and have led to some concerns about how water will be provided to downstream states, furthest from the snowmelt source. When scientists specifically looked at these effects of the Colorado River around Lee's Ferry, Arizona, they found that dust had accelerated spring peak runoff by several weeks, coupled with enough evaporation to decrease annual flow by 5%. They also estimated that the 5% loss would be enough to water Las Vegas for 18 months! So we're not talking about small amounts; the influence of human-induced dust is concerning for many western water managers, though the problem persists globally, too. Similar reports have been documented in the world's most famous mountain range: the Himalayas. But when spring runoff happens earlier, prolonged delivery of cool water over the summer dwindles.
As spring runoff occurs earlier in the year, Rocky Mountain streams lose their snowy reserves held in the high alpine zone leading to decreased summer flows, increased stream temperatures, and rivers that reach base flow earlier in the season. These reduced flow conditions stress trout, impact their spawning behavior, and impact the larger river ecosystem. Earlier spring runoff events can even worsen the effects of drought and increase the risk for wildfires, each climatically linked to climate change as well. According to a report by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, "increased water temperatures, lower flows, and extreme events like floods and droughts are likely to have profound impacts on Montana’s aquatic ecosystems and the fish and wildlife that depend on them". The periodicity of natural disasters has also been impacted. During 2022, the Yellowstone river suffered one of the most astounding flooding events in our lifetime. Predicted as a 500-year flood, meaning the probability of this occurring any year is 0.2%, the river received between 7.5-9.5” of rain in 24 hours. Though estimated as an unlikely, statistically abnormal event, some evidence suggests that with increased global temperatures, and more liquid water entering the oceans from melting ice, the old paradigm of 50 year floods, or 100 year floods, or 500 year floods are more likely to occur more frequently than their names suggest.
Not only are natural disasters playing a role, but humans, who’ve inserted themselves into Montana’s water cycle also hold certain fate cards for their fisheries. In late 2021, a Hebgen Dam malfunction cut off 50% of all flow into the Madison River for 46 hours, during the fall spawning activities of naturalized brown trout. Though some have come out after the fact claiming no long term repercussions were caused on the fishery, aging infrastructure (like the 108 year old Hebgen Dam) can unexpectedly impact fisheries across the west due to mechanical failures, not just in Montana. Many similar, notable freshwater fisheries in the west fall downstream of dams.
Increased temperatures are also predicted for the rivers and streams in Montana. A 2016 study published in the journal Global Change Biology found that climate change is likely to reduce the distribution and habitat suitability of several trout species in Montana, including the Westslope cutthroat trout and the rainbow trout. But it’s not only fish. The iconic salmonfly is also losing ground in Montana, and western rivers. The inspiration for the Bunyan Bug, highlighted in the film “A River Runs Through It”, the salmonfly couldn’t be more iconic in the annals of fly fishing. But salmonflies are disappearing. Loses have been reported in prized fisheries across the western US, including Blue Ribbon Fisheries like the Madison, Logan, and Provo Rivers. In some rivers, declines have been subtle - only on small stretches. In others, salmonflies have disappeared entirely. Salmonflies are highly sensitive to environmental changes, and the cocktail of increasing water temperature, disrupted flow, increased sedimentation and pollution, and disturbances to food webs are responsible for one nasty, even lethal Salmonfly hangover.
Source: The Salmonfly Project
A huge question remains, how does Montana continue to protect its aquatic natural resources and maintain their important revenue stream derived from outdoor recreation, including hunting and angling?
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Overcrowding issues in Montana are finally coming to the attention of state officials.