The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) announced yesterday a dramatic slate of fishing closures and restrictions which impacts some of the state's most iconic and sought out trout water, such as the Yellowstone, Madison, Beaverhead, Gallatin, and Missouri rivers. The closures come in response to dangerous and worsening river conditions, the result of historically low stream flows and high water temperatures, which threaten the survival of the state's trout and other fish species. As Hatch Magazine recently reported, Montana's fisheries are regularly plagued by low flows and high water temperatures due to the mass diversion of stream water by agricultural and other industries. This year, conditions have been exacerbated by climate-change fueled drought and excessive heat blanketing much of the west, pushing Montana fisheries to the brink and prompting FWP to act.
The new restrictions, which go in effect today, affect rivers in southwest, north-central and south-central Montana. The restrictions include full closures on the Jefferson River and portions of the Shields, Big Hole, and Gallatin rivers. Also included are "hoot owl" restrictions—which close rivers to fishing after 2pm—on the Stillwater River and the aforementioned iconic trout rivers. Some of these recent closures are unprecedented in Montana history.
In its statement announcing the new restrictions, Montana FWP highlighted the dangers that low flows and high temperatures can pose to fish, stating that it enforces angling closures "when flows drop below critical levels for fish, when water quality is diminished, or when maximum daily water temperatures reach at least 73 degrees for three consecutive days," noting that "warm and dry conditions are expected to continue during the coming weeks."
"Under normal conditions, fish can fight off infections. However, under the stress of high temperatures and low flows, they are more susceptible to these diseases," FWP added.
As a result of the worsening conditions across the state, a coalition of Montana fly fishing guides, outfitters, and lodges; outdoor recreation companies Orvis and Patagonia; and several conservation groups submitted a letter requesting Governor Gianforte immediately create a Cold Water Fisheries Task Force to address the decline of cold water fisheries in the state.
According to Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director for the group Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, which submitted the letter to Gianforte's office, “the combination of drought, heat, pollution, low water, development, and fishing pressure means our cherished cold water fisheries and southwestern Montana waterways are declining by death by a thousand cuts." Alsentzer said the letter "calls on Governor Gianforte to immediately do more to protect the lifeblood of the state’s $7.1 billion outdoor economy and our way of life—clean and cold water—before it’s too late."
John Arnold, owner of Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig, Montana, one of the letter's signatories, added “between early season fish kills, unnaturally warm water temperatures, and low trout numbers, it’s an all-hands-on-deck moment. Losing cold water trout fisheries could be a death blow for numerous fishing and river related businesses already reeling from the pandemic if action isn’t taken."