Low Flows Hot Trout: Climate Change in the Clark Fork Watershed
Decades of data and observations now point to a clear conclusion: the Clark Fork River basin is now experiencing a very real shift in climate. During the next 100 years, this shift is expected to accelerate, contributing to physical, ecological, social, and economic changes, many of which have already begun.
Scrolling through the months and the metrics from the 1950s, we now see that March in western Montana is hotter, more precipitation comes as rain, spring snowmelt arrives earlier, extreme wildfires are more frequent, and glaciers are making hastier retreats. And the projections years out show much of the same.
While not all the associated impacts are bad—for example, we can expect a longer growing season and improved survival of deer and elk over the winter—we will also experience more forest disease and insect infestation, more wildfire, and higher temperatures in our rivers leading to habitat degradation for our native fish. Some studies have estimated that we could lose between 5 and 30 percent of trout habitat in western Montana over the next century. With less storage of water as snow in the mountains, we can also expect impacts to our “snowpack economy”—agriculture, recreation and tourism, hydroelectric power generation, and forest and range industries.
What does it all mean for our way of life in the Clark Fork watershed? Low Flows, Hot Trout takes a look, delivering a plain-language synthesis of the key findings from years of data-gathering in our watershed, blended with anecdotal observations by a broad spectrum of river basin citizens, from realtor to rancher, fishing guide to firefighter.
We designed this report to be accessible to the public, informative to those whose livelihoods are directly tied to the river, and illuminating to policymakers looking for effective responses.
The bottom line is this: things can be done and everyone can make a difference, from simple at-home fixes that improve energy and water use to large-scale policy changes that stimulate renewable energy production and river-sensitive growth management. The following pages give a snapshot of what we can do to protect our hometown creeks, our local economies, and our celebrated way of life in the changing climate of the Clark Fork watershed.