The meeting room at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' regional headquarters on Spurgin Road was filled with flannel, Orvis caps and hands slick with Papa John's pizza grease. Paul Roos, 75, stood before the assorted biologists, outfitters and guides like some sort of fishing industry paterfamilias, his jokes unanimously laughed at, his words reverently weighted. He talked about pebbles, about dropping them in rivers and the ripples that result. It's a metaphor.
He says: "There's a responsibility that goes with that power that applies to guiding, with respect to this resource, and maybe the survival of the world."
Roos' declaration came after nearly an hour of sobering testimony about how climate change has already affected Montana's fly-fishing industry. Diminished streamflows and increased water temperatures have led to some of the earliest Hoot Owl fishing restrictions on record in recent years. Bull trout continue to recede to cooler reaches in Bitterroot tributaries, while non-native browns move in to fill the void. Warm waters allowed the disease PKD to sweep through the Yellowstone River last year, killing thousands of whitefish and prompting state officials to close a 180-mile stretch of the waterway. Similar conditions have contributed to fungal outbreaks among trout in the Big Hole and Clark Fork.
"I'm not a climate change expert," FWP biologist Chris Clancy said before Roos' address, "so I can't really say these are climate change related. But they appear to be temperature related, and it isn't too far a leap to relate that to what's happening with the climate."
Alec Underwood, climate change outreach coordinator for the Montana Wildlife Federation, convened the March 22 gathering to inspire the beneficiaries of western Montana's fly fishing industry to join the climate change fight. Historically, outfitters and fishing guides haven't been particularly active on the issue, Underwood says. The Missoula event was just the start of what Underwood hopes will become a statewide series of forums. He already has tentative plans to hold a similar discussion in Livingston in May. The end goal, he says, is to start a movement within an industry that in Missoula alone contributed $64 million to the economy in 2013.
"Their clients are often some of their best friends, or their clients really look up to them as the experts on the resource. It's passing on stewardship through the domino effect, really—getting the word out there that there are these threats to our resources."
Roos is no stranger to threats. He tells the story of his first year guiding clients on the Blackfoot River in 1970, and his horror at learning of plans to reopen the Mike Horse mine. Climate change may be a more complex challenge, he says, but fishing guides are in a position to make a lot of ripples.
"I rowed a lot of hours, a lot of days. ... If you've done it very much at all, you know it's a seat where you have a fair amount of power."