Montana’s Famed Trout Under Threat as Drought Intensifies

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“The water temperatures have been above 70 degrees for multiple days in a row,” said Travis Duncan, a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “And there is a potential for more closures as we get further along in the season.”

On Tuesday, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks imposed “hoot owl” restrictions on the Missouri River, one of the most popular trout fishing sites in the state, between Helena and Great Falls because of warm water temperatures. The rule bans fishing after 2 p.m. (The term “hoot owl restrictions” stems from the early days of the timber industry. Loggers work early in the mornings of late summer, when it’s cooler, because the forests are dry and that increases the risk of chain saws or other equipment sparking a fire. Loggers often heard owls during their early morning shifts.)

Although restrictions are often put in place at some point in the summer season, this year is unusual.

“From what we know historically, this is unprecedented in the extent” of limits that have been imposed, said Eileen Ryce, the administrator for the state’s fisheries division.

Compounding the situation here is the decline over several years in brown trout populations in the southwestern part of the state, including the Big Hole, Ruby, Yellowstone, Madison and Beaverhead Rivers, some of the top destinations for fly fishers.

This year on the Big Hole River, for example, on one of the most popular stretches, a May census found 400 brown trout per mile, down from 1,800 in 2014. The Beaverhead River has dropped to 1,000 from 2,000 brown trout per mile. And those counts were conducted early in the season, before the onset of this summer’s extreme conditions. The state is considering long-term restrictions on all of these rivers, which could include release of all brown trout or shutting down fishing in some places.

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