Preparing for a Changing Climate in Missoula County and Western Montana

Jill Alban Ray Rasker
Posted on: 3/07/2012 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

Posted by

Jill Alban

Project Summary

Climate change presents an uncertain future with potentially high costs for Missoula County in western Montana. The area's economy and high quality of life that draw and keep people in the region could be in jeopardy due to changes in average temperature, stream flows, and precipitation. While the exact trajectory of change is unknown, preparations can be made for the future based on a reasonable range of expected scenarios. Preparing for climate change is similar to preparing for other potential events, such as fire or drought. In 2011, close to 100 citizens, local experts, and decision-makers attended a two-day ClimateWise workshop, in which they discussed how climate change could impact the community, economy, and natural systems of Missoula County. Participants identified the top five risks to the future of Missoula County's land, water, and community, and devised a list of strategies and actions to address each risk.


Missoula County is already experiencing some unsettling effects of climate change. Average annual temperatures are rising, snowpack is declining, mountains are storing less water, spring thaw and peak runoff are occurring earlier than normal, late summer flows are lower, and water temperatures are increasing. Scientists anticipate that these trends will worsen and contribute to larger wildfires, more insect infestations, greater stress on native fish and wildlife, and outbreaks of invasive species and disease. Scenarios also include higher chances of severe weather, including a potential for increased flooding. Although the exact trajectory of change is uncertain, actions can be taken to prepare for the future based on a reasonable range of expected scenarios.

The Clark Fork Coalition, Geos Institute, and Headwaters Economics partnered to increase public awareness and involvement in climate change preparedness. In June 2011, close to 100 Missoula County residents, including public officials, conservation organizations, landowners, and specialists in forestry, wildlife, water, agriculture, business, engineering, public health, and other relevant subjects, gathered for a two-day workshop convened by the Clark Fork Coalition. The community workshop was one step in the ClimateWise process developed by the Geos Institute; this process helps communities brainstorm proactive measures based on the best available science to prepare for climate change, and encourages people to work in cross-sector groups to increase community cohesion. At the workshop, participants learned about the recent climate science and what parts of the local economy might be vulnerable to coming changes, then developed strategies designed to address risks and help shape a livable future for the community. Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group based in Bozeman, augmented the climate science with an analysis of current socioeconomic trends and statistics for Missoula County, including vulnerabilities to climate change.


Workshop participants identified the top threats and potential climate change impacts to Missoula County's land, water, and community; these threats were then ranked in terms of importance. Thirty threats were identified and grouped into six categories:

  1. Local Impacts of Global Change
  2. More Severe Wildfires
  3. Larger Floods and Water Quality Impacts
  4. Declining Water Supplies and Water Conflicts
  5. Species and Habitat Change
  6. Invasive Species, Disease, and Pests

Participants then devised a list of 24 adaptation strategies and 100 implementation actions to address these threats. The top strategies for action were:

  • Conserve water: Scientists and citizens agree—water will be the primary medium through which climate change will affect the area’s fish and wildlife, rivers, forests, and human communities. At the workshop, participants agreed that conserving water—whether through irrigation efficiency upgrades, floodplain preservation, or headwaters rehabilitation—should be a high priority in order to address the impacts of climate change on the region.
  • Educate local citizens on risks of climate change: Increasingly, groups working to address climate change impacts are coming to an understanding that education is protection. When adults and young people understand more about how increased average temperatures and changes in precipitation can impact local economies and communities, more citizens will be willing and ready to embrace new practices.
  • Conserve energy: When households, businesses, and government take steps to save energy, they save money, decrease the need for additional energy development, and maintain open space for people and wildlife.

The results are available through an interactive online tool on the Clark Fork Coalition’s website (also available at Headwaters Economics) that helps viewers visualize and explore the threats and strategies identified by workshop participants.

Outcomes and Conclusions

In 2012, the Coalition is facilitating an adaptation working group, focusing on ongoing projects that align with strategies outlined in the ClimateWise report. Through a series of meetings as well as an interactive website, the Coalition hopes to act as a "hub" for adaptation activities in our region, and to help these projects and organizations garner additional funding and resources to assist and improve their adaptation endeavors.

Lessons learned from this project include:

  1. Involve elected officials early on.
  2. Focus on areas that are of immediate concern to the community (e.g., fire, flooding, climate refugees).
  3. Present the information in a number of different formats (e.g., detailed reports, summary reports, interactive graphics, community gatherings, one-on-one meetings with elected officials).
  4. There is no substitute for being in the community in-person and on a regular basis.
  5. Find a way to quickly summarize the climate science.
  6. Include a local, respected scientist that can inform the community on climate change.
  7. Build trust with local land use planners; the implementation work will reply on the relationships built in the first year.


Alban, J. & Rasker, R. (2012). Preparing for a Changing Climate in Missoula County and Western Montana. Ed. R.M. Gregg. [Case study on a project of the Clark Fork Coalition, Headwaters Economics, and the Geos Institute]. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated February 2012)

Project Contacts

Position: Communications

Affiliated Organizations

Founded in 1985, the Clark Fork Coalition is dedicated to protecting and restoring the Clark Fork River basin, a 22,000-square-mile area draining western Montana and northern Idaho. We have a 25-year-long record of substantial achievements improving the health of the watershed. 

Side by side with citizens, scientists, landowners, business leaders, and public officials, we have spearheaded initiatives that have delivered important gains, including:

Headwaters Economics is an independent, nonprofit research group.

The staff at Headwaters Economics blends innovative research techniques and extensive on-the-ground experience working with a range of partners across the West for more than 20 years.

The mission of Headwaters Economics is to improve community development and land management decisions in the West.

The GEOS Institute is a nonprofit, science-based organization dedicated to helping both human and natural communities predict and prepare for a changing climate. To this end, the Geos Institute applies the best available science to natural resource conservation issues through its scientific publications and its ability to link respected scientists to decision makers.