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What does climate change mean for Montana?

Nothing good, environmentalists are warning.

Citing a study that concludes Montana's economy has more than $1 billion riding on hunting, fishing and wildlife watching, the National Wildlife Federation is sounding the alarm about climate impacts in the Treasure State.

Daniel Iverson, communications manager for Montana's Office of Tourism and Business Development, said that while he didn't know how much is spent on outdoor tourism overall, more than 80 percent of Montana's visitors reported they came for outdoor activities, whether hunting, skiing, visiting a state park, or wildlife watching, in 2014. And, he added, in 2014 outdoor enthusiasts spent more than $240 million on outfitters and guides.

NWF regional representative David Ditloff said climate change could adversely affect that outdoor economy.

This concern comes at a time when 150 leaders have gathered in Paris to discuss lowering carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Scientists have been warning for decades that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels, lead to a warming world. The United States and China are the biggest contributors to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

As many as a third of Americans don't believe in climate change, according to research done by assistant professor Teresa Myers at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.

But research in Montana and the reset of the West suggests that climate change is not only occurring — but affecting species right in our back yard.

Fish

Helen Neville, research scientist for Trout Unlimited, said there has been a 60 percent increase in wildland forest fires since the 1980s. That not only affects humans in multiple, negative ways. It also affects fish.

Jason Lindstrom, fisheries biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, called climate change "the hot topic right now."

Lindstrom said research being conducted by the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station in Idaho indicates that "this is a very real thing" and stream temperatures "appear to be on the increase in the last couple of years."

What will this mean for native fish?

Lindstrom said that native fish, especially native trout species like cutthroat trout, can't handle warmer stream temperatures. Their only defense is to move farther upstream, to get closer to the headwaters where the water would likely be cooler.

As the native fish migrate upstream, that means invasive species that can handle warmer stream temperatures will likely move in. Places that will likely be too warm for native trout in southwest Montana will be streams in the foothills and lower elevation areas, Lindstrom said.

Brown trout are also cold-water fish, but they can handle warmer stream temperatures than cutthroat. Brown trout, which are invasive, could expand their numbers.

Lindstrom said that in the coming decades smallmouth bass, which live in the lower Clark Fork River near Idaho and can handle much warmer temperatures, could become an invasive species locally due to climate change.

"We worry about species like that migrating into colder habitat," Lindstrom said. "It's not going to happen right away, but there could be a slow expansion of smallmouth bass (into this region's streams and rivers)."

Moose

Fish, Wildlife and Parks research biologist Nick DeCesare said evidence suggests moose are struggling throughout Montana.

FWP allotted as many as 836 hunter's tags for moose in 1962. In 1995, the state issued 769 tags to hunters for moose. But by 2014, hunters drew only 367 moose tags. In addition, DeCesare said the number of days hunters need to bag a moose have increased from seven days per harvest year in the late 1980s to 14 days per harvest year in 2013 and 2014.

Because of that, FWP initiated a 10-year study of moose in three different locations in Montana: in the Rocky Mountain Front west of Choteau, in the Cabinet Mountains south of Libby and closer to home in the Big Hole Valley, south of Butte. The study is in its third year.

DeCesare said that over the first two years of the study, FWP saw 22 percent of cow moose die annually in the Big Hole Valley.

While DeCesare said FWP doesn't have definitive results yet on why female moose are not surviving as well in the Big Hole Valley as in some other areas, evidence seems to point to the arterial worm, a parasite usually carried by mule deer, as a potential culprit.

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DeCesare said this could be part of a national trend of moose decline across the U.S., which is the southern end of moose range.

In New Hampshire, moose harvest is down by 80 percent. In Maine, hunters have seen a 25 percent to 30 percent decline.

DeCesare said a variety of factors could be contributing to this overall national trend. Habitat loss could be one factor. Another factor could be that the vegetation where moose historically have lived in the U.S. is changing.

But another factor could be that with warmer temperatures, whitetail deer in the east and mule deer in the west may be migrating into habitat farther north, spending more time in moose range. This, in turn, could be leading to parasites that deer carry to be infecting moose — parasites which moose aren't equipped to fight off as well.

Brain worms are thought to be one possible problem for moose decline in the eastern United States. Whitetail deer carry brain worms in the east. In the west, the problem could be the arterial worm, which mule deer carry.

DeCesare said he doesn't know yet if mule deer are inhabiting the Big Hole Valley in larger numbers.

"We don't know that part of it," he said.

Because the research is still in its early stages, DeCesare stressed that he doesn’t have definitive answers to why the female moose are not thriving as well as they should be.

But whether the problem is the arterial worm or something else, climate change does seem to be adversely affecting this particular ungulate species.

"You can see (moose) behaviorally work harder to stay cool as temperature rises," DeCesare said.

Forest fires

Jennifer Jones, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, said the Forest Service and several independent agencies have done quite a bit of research on climate change and how it is affecting forest fires. Jones said the Forest Service does believe there is a relationship between climate change and wildfires.

Since the 1970s, the average number of fires burning 1,000 acres or more has doubled in Montana. The length of wildfire season has increased to 70 to 80 days longer than it was in the 1970s. The most acres burned have occurred in the last 10 years, Jones said.

“Fire is increasing in size and intensity,” Jones said. “In the last few years, fires occurred in places we don’t normally expect to see them. The most striking was the Paradise Fire in Olympic National Park (in Washington). (The fire) was burning a rain forest.”

This year alone, 9.7 million acres burned across the U.S. In the northern Rockies, there were more than 3,700 fires this year and over 725,000 acres burned.

Weather

Kelly Redmond, regional climatologist at the Western Region Climate Center Desert Institute in Reno, Nevada, said the freezing level in southwest Montana rose 1,300 feet last winter. That means that the line where snow fell — as opposed to falling as rain — rose to 6,200 feet above sea level, the highest it has been in 65 years of record-keeping.

Redmond also said that the west has been warming faster than the rest of the United States and that since the late 1970s, the west has gained nearly two degrees Fahrenheit.

Those kinds of changes can mean all kinds of things, Redmond said. He cited pests that live in the white bark pine in the Gravelly Mountains in southwest Montana as one example of how these kinds of climate differences can affect the environment. The extreme cold of Montana winters used to kill the pests that live inside the white bark pine. Now with the temperatures warming, even slightly, those pests don’t die in the winter, and the consequences can devastate the tree population.

Redmond said he knows there are still people who don’t believe in climate change. He said climate is about change and inherently fluctuating and the weather will sometimes revert back to what looks more familiar. But he said one way to think about climate change is that it’s similar to aging. A person doesn’t notice she is aging until an event happens to remind her that she’s not as young as she used to be.

“You won’t notice that it’s a hundredth of a degree warmer, but you’ll notice the big event,” he said. “Just like you’ll notice you can’t break dance at a wedding anymore (because of age).”

Although Redmond said carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is “like the genie in the bottle: Once you let it out, you can’t get it back in.” He also said it would take 1,000 to 2,000 years to eliminate the amount of carbon dioxide that has been put into the environment over the last 150 years. Despite numbers like that and various dire predictions, Redmond, who grew up in Belgrade, called himself an optimist.

“We (humans) can change (our habits), no doubt about that,” Redmond said. “It’s not impossible.”

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