Gianforte Has Yet to Address the Decline of MT’s Cold Water Fisheries

Reminder: 2021 Season Recap: Montana’s Cold Water Fisheries – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Facebook Live October 6th at 12PM

On July 21, 2021 Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, alongside a coalition of over two dozen fly fishing businesses, outfitters, and conservation organizations, including Patagonia and Orvis, sent a formal letter to Governor Gianforte requesting the administration form an interdisciplinary, multi-agency Cold Water Fisheries Task Force to identify solutions to the declining health of Montana’s waterways.

Two months have passed since our initial request was sent to Gianforte, and the administration has yet to take meaningful, long-term action to protect Montana’s cold water fisheries. Instead of addressing the root problem with our rivers and taking a holistic approach to protecting them, the administration has taken a piecemeal approach, picked favorites among stakeholders (agriculture and irrigation), and made losers (our rivers, fisheries, local business, and local water quality).

Here’s a timeline what the Gianforte administration has done for Cold Water Fisheries since we submitted our petition:

  • On August 3, FWP began seeking public comment on a proposal to establish emergency industrial haying and livestock grazing leases within 14 Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) due to extreme drought conditions across the state. This short-sighted decision favored ranchers over critical protected habitat and riparian areas for wildlife.

  • On August 17, a full fishing closure went into effect on sections of the Big Hole River. Fishing is prohibited at all times of day from Dickie Bridge to North Fork Big Hole and Tony Schoonen Fishing Access Site (FAS) to Maiden Rock FAS. These closures will remain in effect until lifted by Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) in consultation with the Big Hole Watershed Committee, or until October 31. The closure went into effect due to high water temperatures and low flows.

  • On August 17, hoot owl restrictions were lifted on the Missouri River from the Cascade boat ramp to Holter Dam, on the Madison River from the border on Yellowstone National Park to Ennis Dam. Hoot owl restrictions remain in place on the lower Madison from Ennis Dam to the confluence with the Missouri due to high water temperatures.

  • On August 20, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission implemented brown trout regulations for the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers in response to declining brown trout populations. On the Big Hole from Dickie Bridge to the mouth of the river near Twin Bridges is catch and release only and artificial lures and single hooks only, and there is a seasonal closure between the BLM Maiden Rock site and Brownes Bridge FAS from November 1 through the third Saturday in May. On the Beaverhead, the entire river is catch and release only with artificial lures and single hooks. There is also a seasonal closure from Clark Canyon Dam to Pipe Organ Bridge from November 1 through the third Saturday in May.

  • On August 23, fishing closures and restrictions were lifted on the Beaverhead RIver from the mouth to Highway 91 S, the East Gallatin River from the confluence with the Gallatin River to the confluence of Bear Creek and Rocky Creek, the Gallatin River from the mouth to Highway 84 Crossing, the entire Jefferson River, the Madison River from Ennis Dam to the confluence of the Missouri, the Ruby River from the confluence with the Beaverhead River to Duncan District Road, the Smith River from Eden Bridge to the confluence of the North and South Fork, and the Sun River from Muddy Creek to the Highway 287 Bridge.

  • On August 25, Gianforte and Republican U.S. Senator Steve Daines promoted the Resilient Federal Forests Act to increase science-based forest management and mitigate wildfire risk.

  • On September 8, Gianforte announced the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will revise Montana’s Drought Management Plan for the first time in nearly 20 years. The Governor announced that the updated plan would include proactive adaptation strategies to reduce the severity and lessen the impacts of future drought conditions. It is unclear if this would include addressing minimum flows in waterways for fish.

  • On September 15, FWP extended the deadline for emergency haying and grazing leases on WMAs after not receiving applications for several lease opportunities.

Notably, the actions taken above target either recreational fishing use of waterways or speak to the needs of the agricultural community. Fishing regulations and closures are baby steps in the right direction toward protecting our fisheries. Revising the state’s drought management plan could be helpful IF the final document provides for enforcement and accountability in terms of obligations and responsibilities creating more resiliency and doing “more with less.”  Unfortunately, past practice with similar water planning documents such as the State Water Plan indicates that drought plans often become empty vessels for measurable change on the ground in Montana communities.

Here’s a timeline what the Gianforte administration and resource agencies have not done in Southwest Montana since we submitted our petition:

  • After the broad coalition led by UMW requested a multi-agency, cross-governmental collaborative task force to address the decline of the state’s cold-water and wild trout fisheries that provide over one billion dollars in local economic activity annually, the Governor’s spokesperson indicated they shared the coalition’s concerns, yet no other response has been made.

  • The Gianforte administration declined to invoke in-stream flow water rights, also known as ‘Murphy Rights,’ on the Shields and Smith River. The law, enacted in 1969, was the State’s attempt to maintain instream flows on 12 of Montana’s most critical trout fisheries. It is unclear if the State’s in-stream water rights were invoked on the other 10 trout fisheries this season as flows hit record lows.

  • Declared a state-wide drought disaster in July, seeking the maximum amount of federal disaster relief assistance for agriculture, but no such request was made for Montana’s cold-water fisheries, rivers or waterways to date nor the impacted businesses and communities.

  • Failed to implement or urge water conservation practices by water users or support additional protections for the health of our rivers and waterways.

  • Continued to greenlight sprawl development and let industrial polluters off the hook, threatening our rivers, waterways, and fisheries. High nutrient discharges from unchecked development resulted in the fourth consecutive year of neon green algal blooms on the famed Gallatin River, Other MT streams like the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Madison experienced prolonged, widespread algal blooms that degraded fishery habitat and local water quality conditions.

  • There has been no convening of top state or federal resource agencies with a mandate to determine what strategies or tactics can be utilized to help conserve cold water fisheries.

  • Similarly, there has been no candid discussion of how state agencies can work with federal partners overseeing enormous reservoirs in the Missouri River Basin to better provide instream flows during critical seasons.  E.g., taking water from a ‘good year’ to pay for a ‘bad year’.

  • To our knowledge, there has been no executive order or like direction requiring state agencies to affirmatively consider climate change or reassess water availability and aquatic life impacts in diverse types of decision-making affecting local water resources.  As consumptive needs of population centers inevitably increase, where is the discussion of smart growth and building green infrastructure mandates? Where is the discussion of irrigation efficiency for the agrarian sector?

Further complicating the future of our cold-water fisheries, it can’t be forgotten that Governor Gianforte:

  • Signed a bill rolling back science-based protections for Montana’s water quality, putting our waterway health and drinking water at risk of increased pollution;

  • Shifted FWP’s focus away from long-term scientific research;

  • Kicked the can down the road on implementing the needed Madison River management plan; and

  • Withdrew Montana from the U.S. Climate Alliance.

Implementing fishing restrictions on Montana’s rivers will become irrelevant if our waterways don’t provide quality habitat for trout populations, or if our waterways heat up or dry up from the impacts of variable snowpack, climate change, and antiquated water management systems. In the face of increasing threats, we need a holistic approach to protecting and building resiliency for Montana’s waterways and landscapes.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper continues to lead, with a coalition of partners, businesses, and water advocates, in the fight to protect Montana’s valued Southwest clean and cold water resources. Along with our allies, we are still actively gathering signatures to urge the Governor to act and hosting an upcoming 2021 Cold Water Fisheries Season Recap discussion on Facebook on Wednesday, October 6th at noon.