Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad: the Existential Crisis of Montana’s Trout Streams

Do CounterPunch, Julho 28, 2021

The clear signs were there months and months ago. A low-snow winter, an early, too hot and too dry spring with almost no runoff. By the time “summer” got here, Montana was already in crisis mode as river levels plunged, water temperatures rose to lethal levels for coldwater fish, and the state roasted in triple digit temperatures with not a drop of rain in sight.

Yet, the man who claimed to be a great leader for Montana, Gov. Greg Gianforte, did nothing. Perhaps he was waiting for the rapture, but goldang it, once again that escape hatch for trashing the environment didn’t happen. And now, despite a new and desperate plea for action to save Montana’s legendary coldwater fisheries, the grim reality is it’s already too late and way too bad.

In a letter to Gianforte last week, a number of river-related businesses and more than a dozen conservation and environmental organizations urged “the immediate formation of a Governor’s Cold Water FisheriesTask Force to focus efforts exclusively on protecting and preserving Southwest Montana’s cold water fisheries, water quality, and wild salmonid populations.”

As usual, the businesses lauded the contributions of our coldwater fisheries to the $7.1 billion tourism and recreation economy, and the conservation/environmental organizations listed a rather dismal accounting of the damages already done to the state’s premier streams. Those include fish kills, low flows and nutrient loading from the wastewater discharge permits the state continues to hand out like popcorn to pigeons.

And of course they’re right that when state “regulators” rely on the outmoded “dilution is the solution to pollution” model, it doesn’t work very well when water flows are reduced to trickles and the “dilution” upon which the discharge permits were based simply isn’t there.

Indeed, if anyone doubts the severity of the problem, just check the U.S. Geological Survey streamflow website, where about the only thing to be said is, “read ‘em and weep.” For instance, there’s so little water in the Upper Big Hole, several stream gauges are no longer reporting any water flows or water temperatures. Then consider this is the last refuge of the fluvial Arctic grayling in the Lower 48 states. The last.

While the intention of these groups, individuals and businesses is undoubtedly sincere, by the time any “task force” gets appointed, meets and is “brought up to speed” by endless reports from state and federal agencies, any opportunity to “save” the grayling will be long gone, just like thousands of Montana’s coldwater fish.

Moreover, this is in a drainage for which the Big Hole Watershed Committee has been in existence for 26 years, claiming to find “consensus solutions” through “collaboration.” Were the outcome not so tragic, it would be laughable. Sadly, it’s just another utter failure of the “collaborative” approach to dealing with serious environmental and conservation issues. In the Big Hole’s “Land of Ten Thousand Haystacks,” the hay gets the water and the fish die on the hot rocks in this consensus solution.

The truth is that the existential crisis for Montana’s coldwater fisheries was totally predictable months ago. But our governor refused to lead. And what little action he did take was to drop out of a multi-state climate pact, declare an emergency, and call for more federal “disaster relief” money primarily for crop and cattle losses — not to save coldwater fish.

In short, one of Montana’s unique and irreplaceable resources, our coldwater fisheries, are being needlessly sacrificed because our Republican “leaders” refused to lead — and now it’s too late, they’ve done too little, and it’s way, way too bad.

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

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