This article speaks for itself. Attention Madison River lovers and friends: If you think all is well on the Upper Madison, think again. If you think we are immune to a loss of wild trout stocks, think again. If you think this party is never gonna stop, think again. As my long-time Montana native friend Dan eloquently states: “the recreational population has outgrown the footprint of the Madison River.” Watching the Madison Valley and the river being swallowed up one subdivision at a time is like watching hungry tigers consuming their young. RB

Privately funded group to pursue remedies for trout decline in southwest Montana

  • DUNCAN ADAMS Montana Standard
  • Jun 19, 2023

They grew weary of waiting.

Last month, fishing outfitters, guides, anglers and people worried about the decline of trout populations in southwest Montana sought immediate action from Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Gianforte never responded. Not directly, anyway.

However, the governor’s office said Monday evening that his response was in the mail.

Prior to Monday’s exchange, his office said the governor referred concerns about trout in the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Ruby and Jefferson rivers to the relevant agency — Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

And personnel from the department turned out in force June 7 in Butte for a two-hour meeting organized by FWP. The department’s new director, Dustin Temple, told a restive crowd of about 60 people that FWP had the resources needed to seek explanations and potential remedies for the declining trout populations.

Wade Fellin, an outfitter and lodge co-owner serving the Big Hole River, said Sunday that like-minded people decided to launch their own effort by forming Save Wild Trout. That decision followed no reply from Gianforte’s office and vague notions about how FWP might proceed, he said.

“The state’s inaction and lack of urgency has left us local business owners and impacted community members desperate for answers, so we’ve formed Save Wild Trout to bring private resources and expertise to work together to find science-based solutions to restoring our fisheries,” Fellin said.

“Though FWP promised massive funding and resources, it’s clear the state does not have a concrete plan for the immediate term — despite our fishery needing immediate action and leadership,” he said. “So, working together with national fly fishing brands and private donors we’ve launched the Save Wild Trout campaign.”

The nonprofit intends to commission study of the rivers and what factors might be driving the decline in trout, Fellin said.

“On the basis of expert science, we will call for any necessary legislative, regulatory or policy changes for river and fisheries management,” he said.

Fellin described Save Wild Trout as a coordinated effort led by Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, founded in 2013.

“After the governor failed to respond, businesses, advocates and community saw the need to take control and provide leadership absent Gianforte,” he said.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper’s website says the organization uses “a combination of strong science, community action and legal expertise to defend the Upper Missouri River, its tributaries and communities against threats to clean water and healthy rivers.”

For now, it’s not clear what the most salient threats are to trout living in rivers famous for the quality of their fishing and fishing experiences. FWP has said low flows are likely a factor, partly because trout need cold, clear water to thrive and partly because related stress for the fish makes them more vulnerable to disease. Photos of trout netted in the rivers show fish apparently afflicted by fungus. Angling pressure has increased year-by-year and catch-and-release can also stress trout and cause mortality.

Paul Siddoway, a longtime advocate for the Big Hole River, said wild trout flourished in the rivers of southwest Montana after the decision in the mid-1970s to stop planting fish.

Yet he said a die-off of brown trout, attributed to a fungus, killed a large percentage of spawning age fish in 2014-15.

“I started pushing for spawning closures on the Big Hole after the 2014-15 die-off and was met with considerable opposition from FWP, as it was not widely accepted that there was a need to panic regarding the brown trout die-off,” Siddoway said. “Fast forward eight years later and our brown and rainbow trout numbers are at historic lows.”

He said the current system “is plagued with procrastination and the inability to make decisions in a timely manner.”

Shaun Jeszenka, an outfitter and owner of Frontier Anglers in Dillon, said he supports the privately funded effort to respond to declining trout populations.

“I think that the Save Wild Trout campaign is necessary, not only to fund the independent study, but to continue to keep the focus on the Big Hole,” Jeszenka said.

“I’m of the opinion that the only way the situation will improve is if we can keep more water in the river in late summer and early fall,” he said. “Leasing or buying water seems like the best solution to me.”

Fellin said Save Wild Trout will convene an independent panel of multi-disciplinary experts to study the collapse of southwest Montana’s trout populations. The panel will “identify causes and propose solutions,” he said, including legislative, regulatory and/or policy reforms.

The move to establish Save Wild Trout follows revelations that both rainbow and brown trout populations are declining in rivers in the Jefferson Basin.

FWP has determined trout populations have reached historic lows in the Big Hole River and elsewhere in the region.

Potential contributors to the declines include: climate change, increased nutrients, warming water temperatures, irrigation withdrawals, fungus, parasites, a dramatic increase in angling days on the river and trout stressed by catch-and-release fishing, algal blooms and more.

Data from three sections of the Big Hole River showed the fewest number of brown and rainbow trout since data were first collected in 1969.

The popular Melrose section — which stretches roughly from Melrose to Browne’s Bridge near Glen — is estimated to host fewer than 500 brown and rainbow trout per mile. Melrose peaked at nearly 3,000 fish at the century’s turn and maintained an estimated 2,500 brown and rainbow trout in 2015.

In spite of the sobering numbers, people on the Big Hole are still catching fish. The river was busy Friday with anglers floating and casting.