Climate change and the subprime mortgage crisis share two trends: They had early signs that some people ignored or denied, and they can strain the economy, experts said Wednesday.

Four people addressed both trends during a presentation titled, “Feeling the heat: The impact of climate change on Montana’s outdoor heritage,” at the Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture on Wednesday.

All four said this summer’s excessive heat and drought were bringing the issue home to more people nationwide. Crop failures in the Midwest and large wildfires in Colorado and Idaho have dominated the news and demonstrate how climate change can cause costly events.

Montana has so far been spared the brunt of the extreme weather. But many Montanans didn’t need the heat to hit before noticing changes that have occurred over the past quarter century, said Bill Geer, a 39-year veteran of fish and game organizations including the old Montana Fish and Game Department, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

“We believe that sportsmen are actually among the first to recognize climate change, even if they don’t say the word,” Geer said. “They see the evidence in the field because they’re out there hunting and fishing.”

Geer said Montana’s outdoor recreation economy is at stake. In 2007, that economy had a gross value of $1.2 billion annually, which is as big as the energy economy.

Now it could be as high as $2.5 billion, Geer said, so a lot of jobs and money could be lost.

FWP Region 3 commissioner Dan Vermillion gave several examples of losses already occurring due to climate change. Vermillion is also an outfitter who runs fishing lodges in a number of countries.

Climate change has changed the timing of the salmon runs in Alaska, threatening not only the fishing industry but also the wildlife and native people who depend on salmon.

In northern Brazil, the El Nino and La Nina weather systems used to cycle the rains, but that pattern has been disrupted, Vermillion said. Outfitters have had to cancel fishing trips because the rains kept coming.

In Montana, fish kills caused by high temperatures in summer 2007 prompted FWP to create criteria for closing rivers to fishing. Warmer temperatures also encourage the encroachment of nonnative species like small-mouth bass, which are working their way up the Yellowstone River.

“With the exception of 2009 and 2010, we’ve had to close rivers every year since 2001,” Vermillion said. “This could affect Montana’s $300-million industry that is dedicated to fishing.”

Vermillion said hunting is also affected, as warmer winters allow elk to stay longer in the high meadows where they’re harder for hunters to reach.

Geer said the mountain pine beetle has also allowed elk to stay high by killing the trees that used to shade out vegetation that elk eat.

Scott Christensen of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Ann Carlson of the Wilderness Society highlighted some projects intended to help Montana’s landscape adjust to climate change.

In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Crown of the Continent, which extends from below the Bob Marshall Wilderness north into Canada, people are trying to make land more resilient to future temperature changes.

“One very sad thing that has happened over the past four or five years is how political the issue has become,” Christensen said. “I believe this is not a political issue – it’s a survival issue.”

Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or llundquist@dailychronicle.com.

Correction

This story should have stated that Bill Geer is a 39-year veteran of fish and game organizations including the old Montana Fish and Game Department, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. This story was changed on Aug. 24, 2012, to reflect that correction.

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