June 21, 2023
Montana Governor Greg Gianforte has acknowledged the dire fish-population situation on the Jefferson River in a letter penned on June 19 to Craig and Wade Fellin of the Big Hole Lodge. Gianforte agreed that the state must investigate the crisis and develop solutions.
The governor’s letter comes in response to a May 30th letter signed by a plethora of Montana outfitters, guides, business owners, and non-profit organizations from the Fellins requesting an emergency meeting, scientific analysis, and funding for businesses hurt by the situation. The Fellins have been leading the charge in spreading the word and calling for action regarding the trout-population crash in sections of southwest Montana’s Big Hole, Ruby, lower Beaverhead, and Jefferson rivers.
“Recently, fish counts on rivers in the Jefferson Basin reached alarming new lows after declining over the last decade," the letter stated. "At my direction, on June 6, 2023, FWP (Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks) announced new efforts to research and monitor trout population declines in the Jefferson Basin to better inform the state's strategies and response. FWP also proposed temporary angling restrictions on the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby Rivers to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which the commission then adopted.”
The letter went on to state that “FWP has prioritized and will develop and implement additional fish population and health studies on the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby Rivers and monitor angler use on the Madison and Gallatin Rivers. These efforts will initiate data gathering and will include additional FWP staff, including creel clerks, as well as Montana State University professors and graduate students.
"Furthermore, the department recently partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct an exhaustive review of fish populations and stream flows across time in Montana. The study confirmed what we know to be true: low stream flows and warm water temperatures contribute to trout population declines."
Although no specific plans for action, a meeting, or a potential bail-out for affected businesses were outlined in the Governor's letter, it is a rare acknowledgment of Montana's warming water and climate from the Republican leader.
Recent data from the Big Hole River and other Jefferson-drainage fisheries revealed the lowest recorded numbers of brown and rainbow trout since 1969. The exact cause or causes of the declines are not fully known, thus stakeholders called upon action from the Governor to head off the crisis.
(Wade) Fellin was heartened that his letter finally reached the Governor and stated that he hopes to have the opportunity to speak directly to Gianforte soon.
“I'm encouraged this finally reached the Governor's desk and he shares our concerns, including acknowledging warm temperatures and low flows are a factor,” Fellin said in an e-mail to the emergency-call-to-action letter's original signers. “We look forward to continuing the dialog with the Governor, his staff, and state agencies.”
Fellin and Upper Missouri Waterkeeper Executive Director & Founder Guy Alsentzer also recently launched a new non-profit dedicated to protecting Montana’s wild trout populations called Save Wild Trout. The organization invites concerned citizens, environmental enthusiasts, and organizations from around the world to join their campaign.
The Governor has requested that continued feedback and recommendations be sent to FWP’s Chief of Conservation Policy, Quentin Kujala, at email@example.com or 406-444-3196.
The governor’s full letter can be viewed here.
Joshua Bergan is Fly Fisherman magazine's digital editor.