With higher than normal temperatures forecast this summer–and snowpack runoff depleted a month ahead of schedule–Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is gearing up now to protect fish from the life-threatening stress of low flows and elevated water temperatures.
“In many areas we’re seeing stream flows fall below average for this time of year, and some that are the lowest ever recorded,” said Stephen Begley, a water conservation specialist for FWP in Helena.
The situation is particularly grim in northwestern Montana. Following the warmest May on record in areas near Kalispell, United States Geological Service data show stream flows across northwestern Montana have already dropped well below normal.
Low flows, high water temperatures, and competition for space and food stress most fish, and especially trout. Fish are often physically compromised and can die from the higher water temperatures, lower oxygen levels and disease–all health threats that can adversely affect trout numbers in future years.
To mitigate drought conditions, FWP sometimes employs certain fishing restrictions and maintains state-owned instream water rights, some granted to the citizens of Montana nearly 50 years ago. These water rights are aimed at keeping enough water in a stream to keep fish healthy.
For instance, last week FWP informed junior water-right holders on Young Creek, a Lake Koocanusa tributary three miles south of the Canadian border, that they may be asked to reduce or stop their water diversions. The request could come if stream flows fall below five cubic feet per second–FWP’s instream flow water right from July through December. Young Creek was flowing at 8 cfs on June 23, the most recent weekly reading available.
Similarly, FWP administers “Murphy Rights” on twelve streams reaches to protect stream flows; has public-recreation claims on the Beaverhead and Bitterroot rivers and in the Blackfoot/Clearwater drainages; and manages water reservations in the Yellowstone and Missouri river basins. FWP also works with a number of local watershed groups to help carry out community drought plans on the Big Hole, Blackfoot and Jefferson rivers.
When the need arises to reduce impacts on drought-stressed fish, FWP also can limit fishing hours to midnight to 2 p.m.–commonly called a “hoot owl” regulation.
“Anglers could see hoot owl fishing restrictions on some streams this summer if drought conditions persist,” Begley said. “A full fishing closure is also an option if conditions warrant such restrictions.”
FWP’s drought policy provides for the use of angling closures when flows drop below critical levels for fish, when water quality is diminished, or when maximum daily water temperatures in a stream reach at least 73 degrees for three consecutive days.
The preferred water temperature for rainbow and brown trout is about 55-57 degrees. Water temperatures of 77 degrees or more can be lethal to trout.
“Fishing in the cool morning hours helps reduce catch-and-release mortality,” said Bruce Rich, chief of FWP Fisheries Division in Helena. “Because Montana generally doesn’t stock rivers and streams with hatchery fish, we work hard to protect our wild fish, and each stream’s wild brood stocks. Those are the fish that will spawn this fall and next spring.”
Should they become necessary, information about angling restrictions and closures will be posted on FWP’s website at fwp.mt.gov.
Information about all water rights, including FWP’s, can be obtained online from Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Water Right Query System at http://nris.mt.gov/dnrc/waterrights/default.aspx.
The Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee’s webpage provides information and links that report conditions and current forecasts at drought.mt.gov.