SW Montana’s Jefferson Basin Trout at Historic Lows; Recruitment Class Absent 

Governor Has Ignored Calls for Cold Water Fisheries Task Force

Recent reporting from the Montana Standard exposed an emergency situation on the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Ruby, and Jefferson rivers. 

Wild trout populations in these rivers have plummeted to 50-year+ historic lows, with a near complete loss of recruitment for the next young-of-year class of trout. 

Despite clear trend data for several years, the lack of leadership from both Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and the Gianforte Administration has put one of the nation’s premier cold-water fisheries at risk of a catastrophic collapse. Immediate action is critical to the future viability of these fisheries and the thousands of Montana jobs that depend on healthy SW Montana rivers and fisheries.

“It’s time to stop pointing fingers and start addressing the problem, before it’s truly too late,” said Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. “The Governor’s Office needs to acknowledge the problem, bring experts together, and take decisive action to address the collapse of SW Montana’s cold-water fisheries. Anything less risks communities and businesses being shuttered, and a loss of one of the last wild trout fisheries in the Lower 48.”

In the summer of 2021, after a perfect storm of dewatered rivers, fish die-offs, severe algal blooms, and increased pressure, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper and a broad coalition of fly fishing businesses, outfitters and guides, conservation groups, and over 1,000 citizens called on Governor Gianforte to establish a Cold Water Fisheries Task Force to address the decline of cold water fisheries in Southwest Montana. 

After two years our call remains unanswered. Despite dramatically declining trout numbers every year since the request, no action has been taken by the State to strategically assess the problem, engage experts across disciplines, or to buffer resiliency to buy more time. The Jefferson subbasin, including the famed Big Hole River, now has even worse, historically low trout population and recruitment numbers that FWP’s own data indicates will only worsen without immediate attention.

The Montana Standard article noted several viable theories on potential leading culprits to the widespread trout population crash, including fungus and bacterial infections caused by poor habitat and water quality conditions. Notably, trout population declines have not corresponded to drought or dewatered years, lending more weight to the theories of how increased pollution and degraded habitat are key issues at-play in SW Montana rivers. Yet despite having collected tissue samples during spring 2022, agency biological analyses simply haven’t occurred, and those fish samples remain on ice one year later. In a time of an unprecedented 2+ billion dollar state surplus, including a well-funded Habitat Montana program, the failure of FWP leadership, much less the Governor’s Office, to prioritize investigation and solutions to the crash of SW Montana’s cold water fisheries shocks the imagination.

In the Big Hole, brown trout populations are down to as low as 200 fish per mile, compared to 1400-1600 per mile as recently as 2014. In the Beaverhead, brown trout populations are halved or worse. In the Ruby, only approximately ⅓ of the historic brown trout population remains.

The State of Montana has a legal obligation and moral responsibility to protect the public trust in healthy rivers and cold water fisheries. Sitting on its hands, ignoring the requests from thousands of Montanans, and failing to take action is a violation of the public trust and a major blow to Southwest Montana’s $167 million outdoor economy, thousands of local jobs, and dozens of local businesses that depend upon clean and healthy fisheries. 

It’s past time for the State to step up to protect the rivers, fisheries, businesses, and communities of Southwest Montana that will be devastated without immediate action.

Photo Credit: Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks