A warming river runs through it – fly-fishing, courts, and climate

by Neil Auwarter

Anglers for thousands of years have fished for trout in Montana’s Big Hole River. First were the Salish people and neighboring tribes in what is now southwestern Montana. Then came white settlers in the wake of the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition. Most recently have come the rich and famous, many inspired by the 1992 film, A River Runs Through It, based on Norman Maclean’s novel set in Montana fly fishing country. Today fly fishing enthusiasts include hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, former President Barack Obama, actors Harrison Ford and Emma Watson, rocker Eric Clapton, and professional athletes Lindsay Vonn and Tiger Woods.

Devotees of fly fishing relish the meditative aspect of interacting with nature in a beautiful setting, as well as the challenge of “reading the river” and mastering the art of fly casting. Many even enjoy fashioning their own lures from fine thread or wire and tiny feathers to mimic the insects on which trout feed. Trout makes an excellent meal, but many fly fishers are in it for sport alone and practice catch-and-release. The remarkable fervor of those who practice the sport prompted journalist Tom Brokaw to quip, “If fishing is a religion, fly fishing is the high church.”

“When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last
stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money.”
–Cree proverb

But in recent years the trout population in Big Hole and other Montana rivers has declined steeply.  In several Montana rivers trout populations are at historic lows.1   And recently so-called “zombie fish” have appeared, alive but blind.  Others are afflicted by red skin lesions or cauliflower-like fungal growths.   In some Montana fly fishing venues the trout population–and the sport itself—are near collapse.2

Some of the trout decline has been attributed to toxic run-off from mining and crop fertilizer; but experts and state officials agree that a major factor is climate change.  Temperatures in the high mountain valleys of the Rockies are increasing at least twice as fast as temperatures nationally.  Montana has warmed 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, and the rate of warming is increasing, particularly in winter and spring.  According to Steven Running, an ecosystem professor at the University of Montana, this warming causes earlier spring melt of the mountain snowpack that feeds rivers like Big Hole.  This in turn causes warmer river water  in summer and fall.  Warmer water holds less dissolved oxygen, stressing fish and making them susceptible to disease and die-off.  In addition, the warmer, drier climate has reduced mountain snowfall and increased evaporation; this has reduced the volume of spring flow needed to flush sediment out of the rivers and provide healthy water for fish populations.3

While trout fishing is inherent to Montana’s identity, the financial heft of angling tourism (estimated at $900 million annually4 ) is dwarfed by the state’s $20 billion fossil fuel industry . So few were surprised when Montana Governor Greg Gianforte recently declined a plea by fishing advocates to appoint a task force to investigate and address the trout decline.  Instead, Gianforte delegated the matter to already beleaguered state fishery authorities.6   Worse, under the sway of the state’s powerful fossil fuel lobby, the Montana Legislature in spring 2023 enacted two statutes, SB 557 and HB 971.  These statutes barred state authorities from considering the impact of fossil fuel emissions and climate change when performing environmental review and permitting of large development projects like coal mines and power plants. The statutes bolstered a similar law enacted ten years earlier.7  Thus, Montana’s Governor and Legislature have not only declined to address climate change; they have taken aggressive steps to prevent other state officials from doing so.

“The Duty of Youth is to Challenge Corruption”
–Kurt Kobain

Into this grim landscape stepped a group of 16 young Montanans ages 2 to 18, who filed suit against the state to enforce a provision in the Montana Constitution granting Montanans the right to “a clean and healthful environment . . . for present and future generations.”   The case, Held v. Montana, is one of several climate action suits brought by young litigants against the U.S. and individual states to compel government action to combat climate change.  These cases were summarized in an earlier CEM Team article.8   In August 2023, after a seven-day trial, the judge in the Held case handed the young plaintiffs a stunning victory.  Judge Kathy Seeley found the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to a healthful environment was violated by SB 557 and HB 971.  (Held v. Montana, No. CDV-2020-307 (1st Dist. Ct. Mont., Aug. 14, 2023.9 )

The Held court found, “There is overwhelming scientific consensus that Earth is warming as a direct result of human GHG emissions, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels.”10, p 19   Cataloging the specific harms from climate change in Montana, the court cited “increased temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, increasing droughts and aridification, increasing extreme weather events, increasing severity and intensity of wildfires, and increasing glacial melt and loss.”11, p 35  Also, the court specifically found the warming climate had reduced the state’s trout population due to reduced river flows and increased water temperatures.12, pp 40-42   The court concluded that permitting fossil fuel activities without environmental review of their climate impact would worsen climate change, especially for young people, who will live longer into a warmer future.13, pp 28-34 The court noted that Montana is a substantial contributor to the climate woes it is suffering: Fossil fuels extracted in Montana annually result in emission of 70 million tons of CO2–more than many entire countries, including Japan, Spain, and the United Kingdom.14, p 67   Accordingly, the court struck down the two contested statutes, opening the door for Montana agencies and courts to consider the impact of carbon emissions and climate change in reviewing and permitting development projects.15, p 102

The attorney for the young plaintiffs, Julia Olson, called Judge Seeley’s decision precedent-setting and “a sweeping win” for Montana, the young plaintiffs, and the climate; and she predicted more court victories would follow.  Attorney Olson elaborated: “Today, for the first time in U.S. history, a court ruled on the merits of a case that the government violated the constitutional rights of children through laws and actions that promote fossil fuels, ignore climate change laws, and disproportionately imperil young people.”16

“Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend
so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.”
–Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

While the Held decision documented the fact Montana is an outsized contributor of fossil fuel emissions, it is also true that Montana ranks among the top ten states in percentage of electricity generated from renewable sources like hydropower and wind.17    Thus, Montana is a microcosm of the earth, causing greenhouse gas emissions at an unsustainable rate–and suffering tangibly from the resulting warming–but also making strides toward reducing those emissions despite itself.

Finally, if you are left wondering whether a single court decision, in a single state, in a single nation, can meaningfully move Earth toward the distant goal of avoiding climate disaster, recall Zeno’s paradox.  Zeno, an ancient Greek philosopher, posed the question of whether a traveler could ever get from point A to point B, given that first the traveler must reach the half-way point of the journey, and then the half-way point of the remaining half, and then the half-way point of that remainder, and so on infinitely.  But like Zeno, we know from experience that even a journey requiring a multitude of small steps can in fact be completed.  So whether you are young or old, a policy-maker, a fly fisher, or merely a traveler from A to B, remember this: The solution to large problems often comes not suddenly, but incrementally, with individual and collective action on many fronts.

Neil Auwarter is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization team. If you have a suggestion for a future blog topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.

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