Bad Drought and Dead Trout: a Foreseeable and Avoidable Tragedy

Big Hole River, Montana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Well, here we are. The brown trout are disappearing from Montana’s fabled streams and rivers and all of Montana’s coldwater fisheries may soon follow.  Unfortunately, it takes a crisis before our politicians and agencies decide to do what’s necessary instead of what’s politically expedient. So now our streams will be shut down, fish will die, national news will once again wonder “what’s gone wrong in Montana?” Our citizens will lament the loss of these natural assets for which we call Montana home—and if our politicians had a shred of foresight or knowledge, this drought and trout tragedy would have been avoidable.

For decades now fisheries biologists and conservationists have been giving our policymakers the same message—the flows are too low, the water is too warm, climate change is exacerbating the problem, and we have to take action or lose our native species and coldwater fisheries. As Fish, Wildlife and Parks fishery management chief Eric Roberts recently told reporters: “Just from what our bios and folks on the ground are saying, there appears to be larger forces at work here than just fishing pressure and angling mortality—probably more flow or temperature drive, those sorts of factors.”

We could throw up our hands, as Gov. Ted Schwinden did in 1985, and exclaim, “I can’t make it rain.” Or, we could use the tools we already have available to keep survivable levels of water in our world-famous rivers and streams.

After a flood of negative national press in 1985, Schwinden shuffled the problem off to his newly appointed Governor’s Drought Task Force and started the state’s effort to find workable solutions to the many and varied problems of severe drought.

In 1988, another drought assailed Montana, more than 2 million acres of Yellowstone National Park burned and the national news was here once again as dead fish lined the banks of the hot trickles that passed for once-great blue ribbon rivers.

By the time the 1989 legislature convened it was obvious something had to be done to keep water in our rivers. The tool of choice was to allow the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to lease water for instream flows from private water rights owners. Although irrigators erroneously claimed it would “destroy Western water law,” proponents pointed out it was willing buyer, willing seller and no one was forced to lose water rights. Just the opposite, in fact, which would compensate those who found leasing their water rights to keep the rivers alive an attractive option. The measure passed into law and a few years later was expanded to allow any willing lessor and lessee to lease water rights for instream flows.

The Future Fisheries Improvement Act of 1995 specifically made about a million bucks a year available for water leasing and other stream habitat improvements—and it could be accessed by state agencies, individuals, or organizations.  And while it has successfully restored instream flows to tributaries such as Big Creek on the Upper Yellowstone, it has not been employed to anywhere near its potential—not by the state agencies and not by private organizations such as Trout Unlimited.

Were our legislators not so busy passing bills to kill wolves and grizzlies and overturning citizen initiatives, they should have seen what was coming and appropriated additional funds for instream flow leases. Bottom line—the laws are on the books, the Future Fisheries money is there, and it would behoove the Gianforte administration to get it in gear, negotiate instream water leases, and save Montana’s world famous rivers and streams from destruction.

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

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