What’s Happening with Wild Trout in Southwest Montana?

You’ve likely seen the troubling news that trout populations in the Jefferson Basin including the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby Rivers, have crashed to 50-year lows. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ (FWP) own data show that brown and rainbow trout populations are at historic lows since the agency began reporting population data in the late 1960s, and recruitment of young-of-year is largely absent, meaning the population numbers will further decline in the coming years. FWP is at a loss for answers and has yet to release a comprehensive plan for restoring and conserving wild trout populations in SW Montana.

To view detailed downloads of the fish count data, check out Upper Missouri Waterkeeper’s post and Big Hole River Foundation’s post. It is also notable that while fish population surveys focused on the rainbow and brown populations, there’s anecdotal evidence suggesting that whitefish and cutthroat populations in mainstem rivers are also low, another nuance that deserves attention.

So what has happened since FWP data revealed historically low brown and rainbow trout populations?

May 23rd:

News breaks in the Montana Standard that the Jefferson Basin and the wild trout population it supports is in freefall and the Big Hole River is still in peril. Neither the Governor’s Office nor FWP offer an explanation beyond broad generalizations to the causes, nor offer a plan of action to address the crisis. Deceased and dying wild trout fish samples provided to FWP are still sitting in a freezer and untested, leaving fly fishing businesses, guides and outfitters, advocates, employees, and communities in the dark as to the cause(s) of the historically low population counts.

May 30th:

A group of impacted guides, outfitters, fly-fishing businesses, and lodges sent a letter to Governor Gianforte requesting emergency assistance. The letter asked the Governor to authorize state expert agencies to access the necessary resources to conduct scientific analyses to determine the cause(s) of the trout population collapse in the Jefferson Basin and potential solutions, and to identify emergency funding to support any river-based business interruptions or temporary closures caused by the declining health of the Jefferson Basin’s cold water fisheries. The Governor’s Office failed to respond by the requested deadline, failed to provide a plan of action, did not act to take emergency measures to address the ecological and economic crisis, and only shared ‘concerns’ through a spokesperson when pressed by a Montana Standard reporter.

June 6th:

In an apparent response to the request of 30 fly fishing and other impacted businesses, FWP issued a press release with no details, no plan of action, no commitment to a scientific study, vague promises to allocate resources, and announced proposed fishing restrictions. FWP has been aware of dead and dying trout in the basin since 2021, yet took no action to test the trout to identify the diseases or infections. Moreover, its own annual fish count data show the population trend decline has been documented for at least 7 years. Additionally, over 1,000 fly fishing advocates have requested the creation of a Cold Water Fisheries Task Force to help respond in these emergency situations since 2021. The request has been ignore and the Governor’s Office has not responded to anyone’s correspondence.

June 7th:

An informal meeting between the public, conservation organizations, and FWP was held in Butte to discuss the wild trout population collapse. While FWP was pressed on its plan to do the required scientific analysis and conduct a study into the cause(s) behind the collapse, no details were provided outside of proposed fishing restrictions. New FWP Director Temple commented to several fly fishing business owners that the agency had between $100 and $67 million available in its budget. FWP Fisheries Department’s budget is just over $23 million per year as authorized by the state legislature. It is unclear what the FWP Director was referencing and what promises were made to impacted businesses.

June 8th:

FWP proposed a set of fishing regulations to the Fish & Wildlife Commission to reduce stress to trout populations. The initial proposal fell short and Waterkeeper notified members to contact Commissioners to encourage them to support stronger measures. The Commission approved some of the recommended regulations Waterkeeper and fly fishing businesses advocated for, effective immediately, as a first step to address the collapse. Approved regulations include catch and release only fishing on the Beaverhead and artificial lures and single pointed hooks only on the Big Hole and Beaverhead. Although the Commission took some initial protective measures, there’s more that can and should be implemented to better limit stress on fish, including an improved Hoot Owl restriction that restricts fishing once water temperatures reach 68°F, regardless of the time of day. Governor Gianforte could invoke a Hoot Owl restriction and make emergency funding resources available immediately with the stroke of a pen. The Big Hole Drought Management Plan also allows for Hoot Owl closures.

As of June 16, 2023, it’s been another week of inaction. FWP continues to have internal discussions behind closed doors, but without a transparent, science-based action plan to recover and protect our fisheries, SW Montana’s keynote rivers, wildlife, and local businesses remain at risk. The common-sense question becomes, “How can we get around inaction and move towards a solution for our cold water fisheries?”

A few options are clear.

  1. Leadership. The Governor could immediately declare an emergency to address this ecological and economic crisis. Doing so would give state agencies the direction to allocate resources, staff, and expertise to help address this crisis. It would also give the Governor the authority to institute water use restrictions, tailored Hoot Owl closures, provide an economic safety net for impacted businesses and workers, and provide concerned communities reassurances that experts are both on-the-job and engaging. The Governor responded to flooding on the Yellowstone River last year, and pulled together an Affordable Housing Task Force with specific timelines and deliverables, yet on the undisputed ecological crisis in SW Montana we have crickets. The absence of elected leaders during this crisis is causing a lot of consternation in the region and outdoors community. Contact the Governor here to request assistance and leadership on this issue.

  2. Investigation. Necessary sampling of diseased fish, including potentially electroshocking stretches to collect fish, followed by pathology and/or lab analyses. This should be done already, but regardless, could be done during runoff and before symptomatic fish once again disappear. Fly fishing guides have provided FWP with locations of diseased and dying trout that could be captured for testing. It’s not clear whether existing, known pathogens are at play, a new pathogen is present, or some other factor is at play when it comes to zombie fish appearing during spring and high water and fall spawning. Additional foot-dragging and a lack of transparency only perpetuates the problems and delays solutions. Contact FWP Fisheries here to request a detailed plan of action and immediate sampling of diseased fish.

  3. Coordination. Natural resource agencies need a coordinated approach to identify the causes of the collapse and develop data-driven solutions. The lack of urgency and leadership, much less a coordinated interdisciplinary approach, is wasting time that could be spent finding answers, all while population data indicates we have no time to spare. Whether it’s a Cold Water Fisheries Task Force or another mechanism to convene relevant federal, state, and local agencies and experts with a deadline for strategies and tactics, it is up to our elected leaders to provide direction.

  4. Transparency. Given the far-reaching social, economic, and ecological impacts a collapsing wild trout fishery in Montana poses, the public and impacted businesses and communities should be kept up-to-date through regular public meetings and communications. Presently, all stakeholders are flying blind, and the information gap results in a lot of wild theories and bucket biologists pointing fingers. Our leaders should be focused on bringing people together and keep them informed. It’s not in anyone’s interest to have a dead river basin, nor to see the ecological and economic impacts will spill over into others regions. Montanans are known for working with their neighbors and pulling together to get things done; we should be doing so now. The failure of leadership by the Governor and FWP is inexcusable.

  5. Interdisciplinary Focus. Short of a formal task force, and based on existing water and fisheries data, the need for an interdisciplinary study of key threats to cold water fisheries and wild trout populations, as well as identification of bang-for-buck management and planning strategies, is appropriate and timely.  Progress will likely remain stalled until adequate resources, funding, and experts become available.

  6. Targeted Action. After scientific analysis and studies provide answers and cause(s), non-partisan science should be used to drive solutions and changes that will ensure the recovery and future protection of wild trout in the Jefferson Basin. Cool, clean water, healthy rivers, and wildlife are part of Montana’s outdoors heritage, a key part of our economy, and our legacy to future generations. In short, these resources are worth fighting for.

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