Scott Bosse

Scott Bosse

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What would Montana be like if we didn’t have cool, clear, free-flowing rivers full of wild trout? How would it affect the two mainstays of our economy — agriculture and outdoor recreation? Would it be worth living here anymore? Would we even be able to live here anymore?

If you asked me those questions a year ago, I wouldn’t have taken them very seriously. After all, rivers are the lifeblood of our state. They’re the source of more than half of our drinking water. They water our crops. They provide boundless opportunities for outdoor recreation, enriching our lives and driving Montana’s $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy.

This summer’s punishing drought has given us a glimpse of what life would be like without healthy rivers, and it’s not pretty. This past July, for example, my friends and I had to cancel our planned float down the Smith River because of historically low flows. Hundreds of other Montanans were forced to do the same. It’s always a bit of a gamble to float the Smith, but this year low flows ended the floating season a month earlier than normal.

Then there’s the fishing closures. Due to a poor snowpack last winter, a dearth of spring rains, and record summer heat that sent water temperatures soaring into the 70s for weeks on end, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks closed many of the state’s most popular rivers to fishing or limited fishing to the morning hours to reduce angling-related stress.

Meanwhile, brown trout numbers in southwest Montana have plummeted by 50% to 80% compared to a decade ago, prompting the state to adopt new emergency measures to arrest the decline. What makes this especially scary is that browns are the most resilient trout we have when it comes to tolerating high water temperatures and degraded water quality.

Between the drought, the wildfire smoke, and the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic, many Montanans are feeling beaten down. One simple thing we can do to pick each other up is ask our elected leaders to support two important bills that will permanently protect some of our most treasured rivers.

The Montana Headwaters Legacy Act, reintroduced by Sen. Jon Tester last June, would add 20 rivers and 385 river miles to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, doubling the number of protected river miles in Montana. Among the storied rivers that would gain Wild and Scenic protection are the public lands reaches of the Gallatin, Madison, Smith and Yellowstone.

Wild and Scenic designation is the highest form of protection we can bestow upon our rivers, safeguarding them from any federally permitted projects that would harm their free-flow, clean water and outstanding values like fish, wildlife, scenery and recreation.

The other Montana-made river bill pending in Congress is the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, also sponsored by Sen. Tester. Over a decade in the making, it would protect the headwaters of the beloved Blackfoot River by designating 80,000 acres of new wilderness, while also enhancing recreational access and ensuring sustainable timber harvest for years to come.

Everyone who cherishes Montana’s rivers owes Senator Tester thanks for introducing these two visionary conservation bills. But for them to pass the Senate so they can be signed into law by the end of next year, they could really use the support of Sen. Steve Daines, who thus far has been silent on both bills.

Sen. Daines played a pivotal role in getting East Rosebud Creek protected as a Wild and Scenic River in 2018, so he knows the value of permanently protecting our state’s most pristine waters for future generations. He also knows that 79% of Montanans support the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act and 75% support the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, which is as close to consensus as one can get.

Montanans overwhelmingly support these bills. Our rivers desperately need them. Working together, our two senators should make it a priority to pass them.

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Scott Bosse is the Northern Rockies director for American Rivers.