Joe and Lori Martinez walk across the Gallatin River on Tuesday, July 6, 2021.

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A coalition of anglers, outfitters, business owners and environmental groups sent a letter to Montana’s governor urging him to form a task force to protect southwest Montana’s cold water fisheries.

The letter addressed to Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte calls on him to create a “cross-government, multi-agency task force” charged with taking proactive steps to keep southwest Montana’s cold water fisheries healthy. The letter comes as widespread low stream flows and high water temperatures this summer have caused concern and triggered full fishing closures and evening fishing restrictions on many streams in Montana.

“Waterways across our state are facing troubling conditions and unprecedented challenges this summer, but none more than the Upper Missouri River Basin’s headwaters in Southwest Montana,” the letter says.

“From spring fish die-offs, summer heat waves and unprecedented drought conditions, to record low flows and historically low fish counts with declining brown trout populations combined with increased development and fishing pressure, Montana’s world-class cold water fisheries are dwindling away, suffering death by a thousand cuts,” it says.

The groups want to see a task force composed of people from state, tribal and federal government agencies, conservation organizations, agricultural groups, fly fishing businesses and conservation districts, according to the letter. The groups want such a task force to work on identifying meaningful policy changes, seeking proactive agreements with landowners and carrying out science-based, long-term solutions for keeping southwest Montana’s cold water fisheries healthy, especially as drought conditions persist.

Organizations that signed onto the letter include Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, American Rivers, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Gallatin River Task Force. Outdoor companies Orvis and Patagonia are also signed on.

“The combination of drought, heat, pollution, low water, development, and fishing pressure means our cherished cold water fisheries and southwestern Montana waterways are declining by death by a thousand cuts,” said Guy Alsentzer, executive director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, in a news release.

Alsentzer said he hopes Gianforte’s office will respond to the groups’ request, pulling together an A-team of experts to proactively address the problem. It isn’t just a ‘fish biology issue,’ but river health issue, he said.

When asked if the governor was considering the request, Brooke Stroyke, a Gianforte spokesperson, said in an email that the governor shares concerns about “this unprecedented drought and its wide-ranging impacts on our state.”

“The administration will continue exploring measures to address the impacts of drought, such as FWP addressing drought impact on our fisheries. As always, we welcome ideas and proposed solutions from all Montanans,” she said.

On Thursday, flows on the Gallatin River near Gallatin Gateway, the Jefferson River near Three Forks, the Shields River near Livingston and the Missouri River at Toston, were running at 59%, 9%, 18% and 31% of average levels respectively, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The drought conditions make fish more susceptible to disease and death. To reduce additional stress on fish, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has limited angling across the region.

At the same time, fisheries biologists still don’t know what caused a fish kill along the Madison River around Beartrap Canyon in May. Over 800 fish, which included whitefish, brown trout and rainbow trout, were observed dead at the time.

Also this summer, biologists found that juvenile brown trout numbers have declined across the southwest Montana region. Officials suspect low flows are a major factor.

In response, they are considering a range of new fishing restrictions, which will go before the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission this August.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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