Losing what we love: Is it the end of Montana as we know it?

If you’ve lived in Montana for any length of time, you’ve probably heard that what we lack in wages we make up for with our so-called “recreation bonus”: easy access to the fabulous rivers, forests and mountains we love so much. The good news is that we’ve moved up from rock bottom to about 44th in per capita income in the last few years. The bad news is that global warming and uncontrolled growth are crimping our recreational opportunities at an alarming pace. We’re literally losing what we love.

If you want to see an angler’s face light up, just mention Montana. Almost every fishing magazine on the shelves will have at least one story about the legendary trout streams with which our state is blessed. Throughout the world anglers dream of some day being lucky enough to fish our waters. For many, the lure of those rivers and fish—and the ability to regularly enjoy them—is the primary reason they live here.

But that’s changing.

Years ago, it was highly unusual to find any stream in our state closed to fishing during the summer. Nowadays, thanks to triple-digit daytime temperatures, shorter winters and skimpier snowpacks, reduced fishing hours and even total stream closures are common. And not only are more streams being closed, the closures are coming far sooner and lasting far longer than anything we’ve experienced in the past.

As a lifelong fly-fisherman, I fully understand why those streams are being closed. Water temperatures are arcing into the 70s during the day and, thanks to warmer nights and the more frequent cover of forest fire smoke, they’re staying there instead of cooling back down. Already this year we’ve seen large fish kills in Yellowstone National Park because the water is simply getting too hot for the trout. And that says nothing about the hundreds or thousands of fish that die after being caught, handled, photographed and released.

To save the basic resource of our rivers—the fish—state policy is now to curtail fishing hours or shut the streams down altogether. To their credit, most anglers and commercial guiding organizations support the closures, and are doing their part to try to save our coldwater fisheries. But stream closures are a stop-gap, desperate measure, not a viable, long-term solution to the problems plaguing our waterways. Moreover, closures primarily target the small sector of anglers and guides, and makes them pay—either economically or recreationally—for problems created by society at large.

Sooner rather than later, the state will have to face the fact that significant policy changes must be enacted if we are to pass the rivers we love on to future generations. One contributing factor to the closures is that there’s simply less water in the rivers. While irrigated agriculture is by far the largest water user in the state, it’s at least a regulated use. Farmers and ranchers hold water rights that clearly define how much water they get to use, and when the rivers begin to fall, water commissioners known as “ditch riders” patrol the irrigation diversions, measure the water, and do their best to make sure no one is taking more than their legal allocation.

Unfortunately, there’s no similar protection for groundwater. The homes filling our valleys simply sink a well and start pumping. Domestic wells are supposedly limited to 30 gallons per minute, but no one really has any idea how much water is actually being pumped from the ground on any given day. When you stuff more sucking straws into the groundwater, less and less water makes it from the mountains to the stream. Less water in a stream means slower flows that get hot faster and bring on stream closures earlier. In the near future we’ll either have to ascertain and implement limits to growth based on available water, or risk losing our rivers, our fish, and the economies they fuel.

The same story can be applied just as well to forest and backcountry recreational closures as global warming turns our woods into tinderboxes. After a week in the stifling heat of the cities, thousands of Montanans seek the refuge of cool pines and higher elevations. But now, just as with the rivers, those forests and mountains are being closed to use earlier every year. And again, a small sector is paying for problems caused by us all. Loggers, like fishing guides, suffer direct economic losses from forest closures, while recreational users lose the “bonus” that makes living in Montana such a joy.

We need to make some big changes very soon. But since our policymakers seem hog-tied and incapable of moving at anything but glacial speed, what can we actually do? Well, here’s where personal responsibility comes in. Every one of us can do our part by simply conserving resources every day. Using less water and turning off the lights when you’re not in the room are simple but effective measures that add up when tens of thousands of people join in. Reduce your carbon footprint by driving less, driving more fuel-efficient vehicles, carpooling and buying locally. And finally, vote for politicians who understand the need to move quickly on global warming issues, and have the courage to do so.

It may rub some of us wrong to think we’re losing our “freedom” to use as much water and energy as we want. But in the bigger picture, it should be obvious that the hard choices are upon us. We either cut back on our consumption and pollution or, in the not-too-distant future, we lose the very things we love most.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at


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