The center seat of a fishing boat often doubles as a soapbox, where professional guides like me can spout frothy leads, dispense foolproof instructions, and proclaim our program as “the way.” But, when we are silent, we usually find the bow and stern occupied by people who inspire us to listen… and learn.
One of my most memorable days of listening and learning occurred two and a half years ago as I guided scientist Clint Muhlfeld, Ph.D. and journalist Chris Solomon on my native water, the North Fork of Montana’s Flathead River. Chris, on assignment with National Geographic Magazine, interviewed Clint and me about the impact of climate change on fishing.
As we discussed the decline of native trout populations, Clint, a research aquatic ecologist with the United States Geological Survey, discussed how warming glacial waters and changing stream flow patterns are good for the non-native rainbow trout, allowing their hybridization with native westslope cutthroat trout. He said the union could be detrimental to the persistence of native trout in one of North America’s most intact freshwater ecosystems.
At the time, Clint also gave us the scoop that 20,000 fish records collected over the past three decades were being compiled into a pending scientific paper on the impacts of climate change on native fish north of the Rockies.
Recently, Clint emailed me to let me know that the peer-reviewed article had been published. And, of course, the study, published in Science Advances, reveals how warming affects only native bull trout and cutthroat, offering new insights for resource managers.
Flathead Beacon editor Tristan Scott recently wrote an article articulating the findings. The cutthroat, he explains, has key genetic adaptations that allow it to withstand rising temperatures. But hybridization breaks down co-adapted gene complexes that are programmed for locally adapted traits, so climate-induced hybridization is likely to reduce their fitness and ability to adapt to changing climatic conditions like they have done this for millennia, even during warmer times. Meanwhile, it’s not the non-native species that are destroying bull trout in local streams and rivers, it’s that rivers with rising temperatures and less flow becoming uninhabitable for bull trout species. endangered Arctic char. The study shows us how climate change can directly and indirectly affect habitats and species interactions.
The document reflects higher level modeling to more accurately predict the future and gives us ammunition to fight to protect the resource. I say “we” because even though it is our elected leaders who set environmental policy, it is up to us, as stakeholders, to support these measures.
Good guiding is more than just shoveling water and selecting the appropriate sandfly models. Over the past decade, more and more guides have stepped up to witness the changes we have witnessed from headquarters, including altered runoff, reduced flow, species hybridization, damaged spawning, increased nutrient loads and water temperatures that are lethal to fish. It is therefore extremely encouraging to see a detailed report supporting conservation opportunities.
I’m proud to work on the cold water fishery which contributes nearly $650 million each year to our state’s economy. Healthy fish are essential to our economy, to the health of the ecosystem as a whole and to our cultural richness. That’s why fly fishing industry leaders nationwide are joining the conversations about green banking, electric vehicles, updating the power grid, sustainable agriculture, carbon neutrality and carbon pricing.
I’m grateful to my peers who have helped my fly shop, Lary’s Fly and Supply in Columbia Falls, achieve carbon neutrality and I’m thrilled that more fly shops are continuing this action. My business depends on clean rivers. And, as the parent of three adult children with whom I am fortunate enough to work, it is not possible for me to fly fish without addressing the climate crisis. Conversely, I would not understand the environmental impacts so directly without my family’s intimacy with the river.
In fly fishing, we work with thin margins, recognizing that environmental policy changes are also made at the margins. With approximately 50 million members of the outdoor community in the United States, we have a mega impact at those narrow margins when pushing lawmakers to approve solutions to the climate crisis.
Right now, that means expressing to the US Senate and President Joe Biden that the powerful and growing outdoor community wants climate provisions to remain in the Build Back Better bill, which is still under negotiation. There are simple ways to express it, including on the Citizen Climate Lobby website.
Equipped with scientific facts, Montana courage and mutual support, we are all at the center. We have listened, we have learned, and we have the authority and responsibility to guide our elected leaders toward strong climate policy to protect our livelihoods and our legacy.
Hilary Hutcheson is a fly fishing guide and owner of Lary’s Fly and Supply in Columbia Falls.