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Photo of an angler on western Montana's Beaverhead River
In Hot Water

by George Black

As global warming comes to the rocky mountain west, anglers and environmentalists start to speak the same language.

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that fly-fishing is your passion. Your idyll might well look something like this: the valley of the East Fork of Rock Creek in western Montana on a clear morning at the beginning of July, rimmed by the snow-peaks of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness; a vast expanse of yellow and blue wildflowers under the big sky; a meandering, spring-fed meadow stream, where the brown trout rise steadily from beneath the cut banks, one after another, to take your dry fly.

But landscapes aren't always easy to read, and this one was especially deceptive. Beneath the calm and radiant surface, the attentive observer could detect ominous symptoms of a warming world.

Photo of an olive sculpinBruce Farling, who has run the Montana office of Trout Unlimited for the past 12 years, told me that he sees the signs of global warming all around. Like the rest of the Rocky Mountain states, Montana has now suffered through seven straight years of drought. "We haven't had an 'average' snowpack since 1997," Farling said. "It used to be common for us to have a couple of weeks every winter when it would go to 30, 35 below. These days it hardly ever falls below zero." The winter had also been abnormally dry, he added: "Precipitation in western Montana in February was the lowest ever recorded." But then late snows whitened the peaks again in April and May, and June brought downpours. The Flathead Valley, an hour north of Missoula, experienced its wettest June in more than a hundred years. By the end of the month, most rivers were bank-full torrents. Things had gone from one extreme to another, in other words, which is why Farling prefers the term "climate disruption."

Conditions such as these have a way of limiting the angler's options. On Montana's biggest rivers -- the Missouri, the Madison, the Yellowstone -- you're pretty much restricted to scudding along in a drift boat, hurling big flies at the bank. Chuck-and-chance, some people call it, and it's never much appealed to me. I opted instead for the Bitterroot, the Blackfoot, and Rock Creek, all of them tributaries of the Clark Fork of the Columbia River, which flows through downtown Missoula. You could use each of these rivers, Bruce Farling said, as a diagnostic of global warming.

When Montanans enumerate the threats to their rivers, global warming has not been high on the list. That's understandable, perhaps, since the assaults have been so various. Thanks to Western water laws, entire sections of some rivers run dry in summertime, when ranchers take what they need for irrigation. The seven-year drought, of course, has made matters worse. On top of this, clearcutting has denuded many hillsides, filling rivers with sediment and suffocating trout spawning beds. The Clark Fork, meanwhile, is still blighted by the Butte and Anaconda copper industry, even though the mines and smelters have been closed these 20 years and more.

Photo of a brown troutJust as global warming hasn't been uppermost in the minds of fly fishers, so trout streams haven't been of great concern to environmentalists. One of the few exceptions was a 2002 report published jointly by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife, which estimated that global warming might cause the loss of anything from 5 percent to 30 percent of trout habitat in Montana by the year 2090. (The forecasts for New Mexico and Arizona, whose cold-water streams are home to the rare Gila trout, are even more dire.) But as Farling pointed out to me, the report's findings were based only on projections of air and water temperature; a variety of other negative factors weren't taken into account, ranging from loss of snowpack and decreased precipitation to disease, habitat fragmentation, and changes in predator populations.

Trout are an iconic species for Montanans. Pick up your rental car, check into your motel, and someone is likely to hand you a piece of promotional literature embellished with quotations from Norman Maclean's book A River Runs Through It, which was later made into a movie by Robert Redford. Maclean's novella celebrates the Blackfoot River, and the line they like best for the tourist brochures is the one about there being no clear line between religion and fly-fishing. Sportfishing contributes almost $300 million a year to Montana's economy, and you will often see the trout on custom license plates. "Montanans like to make a statement through their vehicles," Bruce Farling said wryly. "The message is: I like trout."

The Blackfoot is an interesting example of what can be accomplished when people steer clear of mutual stereotyping -- when, for example, "tree-huggers" make common cause with the "hook-and-bullet crowd." In 1998, the Montana legislature passed a ban on the destructive process of cyanide heap leach mining, effectively barring Phelps Dodge of Arizona and Canyon Resources of Colorado from building an open-pit gold mine on the upper reaches of the Blackfoot. This was nothing short of astonishing, since hard-rock mining had dominated Montana politics for the better part of a century and contributed mightily to the state's sense of itself as the last wild frontier. Last November, the mining interests came roaring back with a ballot initiative, I-147, aimed at repealing the ban. Canyon Resources pumped more than $3.5 million into the fight, more than had ever been spent on a political campaign in Montana, with publicity that emphasized jobs, a healthy economy, and a "common sense" approach to the environment (a turn of phrase that is also popular in Washington these days).

Conservation groups, meanwhile, scraped together a war chest of $400,000 -- and proceeded to crush I-147 with 58 percent of the vote. This, too, was astonishing, since George W. Bush took the state last year by a 20-point margin. Tracy Stone-Manning, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, told me,"It was the finest coalition of conservationists, ranchers, and summer residents we've ever seen. Bruce at Trout Unlimited was just determined to make it work. And it did."

The message from the Blackfoot was this: Think carefully before you decide who is an adversary and who is a friend. Ranchers, like anglers, may not strike most environmentalists as natural allies, and many of those in the Blackfoot Valley almost certainly voted for Bush. But it turned out that the key to saving the valley was its historic pattern of land tenure. Large tracts of privately owned ranch land -- which have often been in the same family for a hundred years or more -- connect seamlessly with public lands and designated wilderness areas.

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George Black is the articles editor of OnEarth. His latest book, Casting a Spell: The Bamboo Fly Rod and the Pursuit of Perfection in America, will be published by Random House in Fall 2006.

Photos: top and middle, brianokeefephotos.com; bottom, Florian Schulz

OnEarth. Fall 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council