The Looming Threat to Montana’s Rivers

Boulder Fork of the Yellowstone. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Straddling the Continental Divide with its majestic snow-capped mountains, Montana has some of the cleanest and coldest water in the nation. Thanks to that incredible resource, we are also world famous for our wild trout while most other states have “put and take” hatchery-raised fisheries. Those same cold and clean mountain streams flow out to our valleys and plains, feeding lakes and reservoirs while providing our municipalities with an abundance of water requiring only minimal treatment prior to use.

Yet now Montana’s legacy of pure water — and the legendary diversity of fish and wildlife it sustains — is under attack thanks to a clueless, ideologically driven legislature and governor willing to ignore not only the lessons and agreements of the past, but the rapidly mounting challenges of climate change. By abandoning any pretense of balancing their misguided belief in infinite economic growth with impacts to Montana’s finite and ever-more-stressed environment and ecosystems, they may well destroy the state’s most valuable resources with their short-sighted policies.

Alarmingly, by mid-May the Ruby River was shut down to fishing due to low flows, there were large fish kills of whitefish and trout on the blue ribbon Madison River as releases from the useless Ennis Dam quickly raised downstream water temperatures, and the populations of brown trout in our major rivers and streams are seriously plunging. These are all blaring warning signs that anyone with concern for the future would heed.

But acknowledging reality doesn’t seem to be a strong point with either Gov. Greg Gianforte or his Republican legislative cadre. They already lowered our water quality standards for nutrients and now Gianforte opposes releasing more water from Fort Peck Dam in the spring to keep the pallid sturgeon from going extinct. These fish have been in Montana’s river systems for tens of millions of years, a fact that appears to hold no weight with a governor who seems to believe the earth is 6,000 years old and humans co-existed with dinosaurs.

It’s worth noting the pallid sturgeon was listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act more than 30 years ago. Now, with less than 130 sturgeon remaining in Montana — including those raised in hatcheries since there has been no documented successful natural reproduction — one might think it’s time to do whatever we can to prevent yet another native species from vanishing forever.

But while Montana’s governor may decide to ignore the plight of endangered species, the reality is that the federal government is mandated by the Endangered Species Act to take steps to maintain and restore species on the brink of extinction. That means no matter what Gianforte wants, the feds are legally bound to take steps to save pallid sturgeon. While the Republicans may whine about “federal over-reach,” it’s something they better get used to since their benighted environmental policies are driving even more species to the brink of extinction.

As 87-year-old famed primatologist Jane Goodall recently said: “What we need to do… is develop a new relationship with the natural world and animals. If we don’t somehow get together and create a more sustainable greener economy and forget this nonsense that there can be unlimited economic development on a planet with finite resources, and that the GDP isn’t God’s answer to the future, then it’s going to be a very sad world that we leave to our great-great-grandchildren.”

Goodall is right and our current so-called leaders ignore her advice at great peril. For truly, Montana’s abundance of “clean and cold” water — and all that it sustains — is far more precious than gold.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.