Duck Stamps, Lead Shot, and the Fiscal Cliff: Politics of the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012

Amid all the recent politicking around the so-called fiscal cliff, the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012 has managed to find its way into the mix.  In a procedural vote on November 26, Senate Republicans temporarily killed bipartisan Senate Bill 3525 citing noncompliance with the 2011 Budget Control Act.  The 50-44 party line vote fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance after Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) complained that the bill violated spending caps on congressional panels including the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the Federal Duck Stamp program.

The Sportsmen’s Act, sponsored by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) is a collection of 17 bills aiming to increase conservation and expand sportsmen and women’s access to federal lands, among many other provisions.  The bill received wide bipartisan support in the House, and is backed by at least 55 groups including the White House, Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and the National Rifle Association.

Key conservation measures include reauthorization of programs including the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the Multinational Species Conservation Fund and the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (a “land-for-land” exchange program).

2012 Federal Duck StampSource:

2012 Federal Duck Stamp

While the bill would decrease the deficit by $5 million over the next decade, it would also increase spending by due to additional spending associated with a $10 price increase on the Federal Duck Stamp, taking it from $15 per stamp to $25.  The federal government uses proceeds from the stamps to conserve wetlands critical to waterfowl.  According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the price hike would translate to $132 million in new spending over the next ten years.

Sessions conceded, “The fundamentals of this bill are good,” but then asked, “At a time of unprecedented spending and unsustainable debt, low public confidence in Congress, should we not adhere to even the small spending limits that have been enacted?”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the vote a sign of the Senate’s dysfunction, noting that Republicans voted to halt a bill that “probably has more agreement on the other side than this side.”  42% of sportsmen surveyed are Republicans, according to the National Wildlife Federation.


Mallard on right with characteristic drooping wing, a symptom of lead poisoning
Photo by James Runningen

One controversial component of the package is a reaffirmation barring the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate lead ammunition and fishing tackle.  The bill would keep regulation of lead use with state fish and game agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Another contentious provision would allow polar bear trophies shot in Canada before the species was placed on the endangered species list to be imported into the U.S.  Objecting to both of these components, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) was the only Democrat to break from party ranks by voting against the bill.

“I believe this bill has many good provisions that will help preserve America’s treasured natural resources, protect fish and wildlife and provide recreational opportunities for our families,” said Senator Boxer. “Unfortunately, the bill also includes two provisions that threaten public health and could set back wildlife conservation efforts.”  Sen. Boxer has proposed an amendment that would require further study on the effects of lead on wildlife.

While increased regulation of lead is a good thing for fish and wildlife, America doesn’t need to spend money on a study to tell us that lead shot is harmful to fish and wildlife, as well as humans.  When a bird or a buck is wounded by lead shot, it will likely suffer from lead poisoning.  If an animal is shot and killed with lead and left in the field, scavengers, including bald eagles, that eat the downed game are also likely to contract lead poisoning.

As a result of the lead and polar bear provisions, a coalition of some 200 conservation, birding, and animal welfare groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, the Humane Society of the United States oppose the bill.

Among some of the more beneficial pieces of the legislation are a bill each from Colorado Senators  Mark Udall (D) and Michael Bennet (D).  Senator Benett’s bill would allow bowhunters with archery equipment to cross national park lands in order to access adjacent hunting lands. Currently, bowhunters do not enjoy the same rights as those with firearms to access prime hunting lands adjacent to national parks.  Senator Udall’s bill would give states greater flexibility to use the funds collected on shooting and archery equipment and ammunition to create more accessible ranges for safe target practice and recreational shooting.


Lake Constantine in Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness is already open to fishing. Photo: Carper Davis

According to an email from Sen. Benett, “hunting, fishing, and wildlife-watching activities contribute approximately $3 billion to Colorado’s economy annually. Outdoor pastimes in Colorado support over 33,000 jobs.”  However, according to research conducted by Southwick and Associates as cited by The Denver Post, over half of sportsmen surveyed said they spent less time hunting as a result of having lost access to a hunting location last year.  11 percent of those surveyed said the lost access prevented them from hunting altogether.  If the lost land also prevented this 11 percent from spending money associated with their hunts, the lost access could translate into millions of dollars in lost economic activity in Colorado.


A waterfowler collects decoys over icy wetlands.
Credit: Joel McWhorter via

The Sportsmen’s Act of 2012 is a bill that needs to be passed.  It will benefit fish and wildlife through conservation, while increasing access to public lands necessary to provide ample opportunities for hunting and fishing.  In turn, this access will translate into economic activity in communities across the nation.  While some provisions are controversial, there’s more to support than oppose in the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012.

Things appear to be moving in the right direction.  On November 30, Sen. Tester introduced a “sodsaver” amendment that would save about $175 million, more than enough to cover the increased spending associated with the duck stamp. The sodsaver provision was previously included in the Senate’s farm bill.  Hopefully, the Senate can move past the partisan politics to get this bill passed.


How to Make Western Waters More Resilient

In an earlier post, “Fishing in the Extremes,” I discussed how climate change is impacting fishing conditions in the West. To continue this conversation, this post will review climate change impacts on river ecosystems, outline Trout Unlimited’s conservation strategy, and provide a local example of how TU is responding to the threat by making rivers more resilient to low flows, higher temperatures, and other adverse effects.

Beyond Seasons’ End, a joint publication from TU, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, and other wildlife conservation organizations, outlines four primary affects of climate change on coldwater fisheries.  These include:

  1. Causing increased water temperature.
    • In turn, this decreases habitat availability, alters migration and spawning patterns, limits food availability, and spreads pests, parasites, and disease.
  2. Altering stream flows due to increase rain (vs. snow) precipitation, reduced snow accumulation, and earlier snowmelt.
    • An early and rapid runoff in the spring, combined with low flows during the summer and fall, stress fish and decrease food supplies.
  3. Exacerbating natural disturbances, such as wildfires and drought.
  4. Promoting non-native and invasive species that are more resilient than native species to changing conditions.

Trout UnlimitedTo combat these effects, TU has a four-pronged approach to protect, reconnect, restore, and sustain watersheds.  TU specifically focuses on the small tributaries that are especially vulnerable to climate change and vital to fish spawning.

Protecting remaining critical habitat areas is key to maintaining healthy downstream flows. This includes not only the rivers and streams habitats, but also the surrounding vegetation that contribute to a vital river ecosystem.  Additionally, maintaining the genetic diversity of native fish populations enable populations to better adapt to future environmental change.

Reconnecting high quality habitats is also of key importance as roads, agriculture, and land use changes contribute to increased fragmentation of river systems.  Dams, culverts, and other obstacles impede fish from accessing the wide variety of habitats necessary for a healthy population.  To this end, TU focuses on the removal or modification of physical barriers and aims to return flows to streams that periodically run dry due to diversions.

Badger Creek, Idaho

An Idaho creek before and after a TU restoration project.
Source: Trout Unlimited

Restoring entire watersheds to a healthy, natural state allows fish to better withstand the impacts of rising temperatures, floods, fires, and droughts.  This includes habitat restoration, and restoration of native fish populations.  By restoring streams that run dry or no longer support native populations, TU is giving fish more room to live and reducing competition against invasive species.

Finally, sustaining conservation and recovery efforts will ensure continued progress towards healthy fish habitats.  Engaging local communities and stakeholders in conservation education and action is critical to integrative approach to sustaining healthy fish habitats and populations.  Local stakeholders are also vital to the ongoing watershed monitoring and evaluation necessary for adaptive management.  Despite all the scientific study of climate change, it remains a somewhat unpredictable threat.  Through appropriate monitoring and evaluation of impacts, TU and fish and wildlife management agencies are better positioned for successful adaptation tactics.

Click on the image of Jerry to watch a video on stream restoration work in Idaho.

Click on the image of Jerry to watch a video on stream restoration work in Idaho. Source: Trout Unlimited

Grassroots Defense Tactics

In Colorado, Trout Unlimited has a team of conservationists and scientists working hard to mitigate and adapt to these threats.  The Colorado Water Project was formed in 1998 to apply TU’s four conservation principles to the many Colorado rivers and streams that are threatened.  In its nearly fifteen years, the CWP has sustained healthy coldwater fisheries by fighting harmful diversion and storage projects, advocating for instream flow legislation, facilitating dialogue among key stakeholders, and enlisting TU volunteers to physically restore vulnerable rivers and streams.

A great example is the work TU is doing for tributaries in the Yampa River system.  Three factors make certain tributaries and the suite of native fishes therein especially susceptible to the effects of climate change. First, segments of some tributaries are characterized by overly wide and shallow channels, making them unstable and more susceptible to altering flows.  Second, summer temperatures are already nearing the tolerable threshold for species such as the Colorado River Cutthroat Trout.  More importantly, the species threatened by these temperatures are often already restricted to the coldest reaches of the streams. Finally, the native fish populations in many tributaries are relatively small, and are isolated from other fish populations.

Source: Steamboat Today

Brian Hodge
Source: Steamboat Today

According to an interview with Brian Hodge, the CWP Project Coordinator for the Yampa/White River Basin, TU would like to address these threats with a strong climate adaptation strategy.  Specifically, the strategy would entail the following activities:

  1. Design, and attain the permits for, restoration work in which we will improve channel function and stability, reduce incoming solar radiation, and increase availability of localized patches of colder water;
  2. Supervise construction of that restoration work;
  3. Monitor physical and biological indices (e.g., fish density, stream temperature) to evaluate project success; and
  4. Work through internal and external channels to disseminate the results of the project and replicate its successes.

Mr. Hodge expects these activities will provide measurable benefits to the tributaries at risk.  Installation of log vanes will divert water away from eroding shorelines while concentrating currents and creating pool habitat.  Pool excavation will provide spots of deeper, colder water to give fish refuge from warm temperatures.  Finally, planting willows and cottonwoods will improve the stability of banks while offering fish protection from the sun.

As climate change continues to negatively impact fish and wildlife in around the world, it is nice to know that groups like TU are working diligently on local levels to offset the effects and keep our rivers and streams healthy and full of fish.  The next post will take a look at what Congress is (or isn’t) doing to support anglers through the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act of 2012.

The Last of the Pure Greenbacks?

This fall, researchers at the University of Colorado released a study that revealed startling news about Colorado’s state fish, the greenback cutthroat trout.  Specifically, the genetic research indicates that the last wild population of the federally protected species resides in a four-mile stretch of Bear Creek, a small tributary to the Arkansas River west of Colorado Springs. 


Pure greenback cutthroat trout from Bear Creek. Source: Colorado DOW

The new findings may come as a shock to anglers who fished other streams looking to snag a greenback. “We’ve known for some time that the trout in Bear Creek were unique,” said Doug Krieger, senior aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Greenback Cutthroat Trout Recovery Team leader. “But we didn’t realize they were the only surviving greenback population.”


Click on the image of Doug to watch a Colorado Parks & Wildlife video on the Bear Creek greenbacks.
Source: Colorado Parks & Wildlife

Using mitochondrial DNA extracted from wild trout and from museum specimens collected as many as 150 year ago, Drs. Jessica Metcalf and Andrew Martin of CU’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology compared DNA of native wild greenbacks to that of modern-day cutthroat species.  Their analysis estimated that only 750 greenbacks remain.

Cutthroat trout are considered one of the most diverse fish species in North America and evolved into 14 recognized subspecies in western U.S. drainages over thousands of years.  Four lineages were previously identified in Colorado: the greenback, the Colorado River cutthroat, the Rio Grande cutthroat, and the extinct yellowfin cutthroat.


Cumulative numbers (in millions of fish) of cutthroat trout, rainbow trout and brook trout stocked in Colorado waters from 1885 to 1953 by state and federal agencies. Private interests also stocked fish around the state, but their efforts were generally smaller in scale, and much less well docu- mented. Dates of museum collections used in this study are indicated by arrowheads. Source: Metcalf, et al. 2012

Due to the widespread propagation and stocking of trout over the last 150 years, the distribution and diversity of cutthroat trout have changed dramatically.  The first documented movement of fish occurred in 1873, after Colorado native trout saw dramatic declines due to overfishing, mining pollution and agricultural practices in the mid 1800s. 

Greenbacks were native to the South Platte River basin, and were actually declared extinct in the 1930’s before being “rediscovered” in 1953.  According to the study, the Bear Creek population survived because a hotel operator trying to promote a tourist route to Pike’s Peak stocked them there in the 1880s.  Interestingly, the last remaining pure greenbacks survive in stream outside their native range.  While the stocking and propagating of fish contributed to declines of cutthroat trout in their native ranges, it also appears to have inadvertently prevented the extinction of the greenback.


Native ranges of Colorado’s six distinct lineages of cutthroat trout follow major drainage basins. Colors indicate different native species. Source: Colorado Parks & Wildlife


“With the insight afforded by the historical data, we now know with a great deal of certainty what cutthroat trout strains were here in Colorado before greenbacks declined in the early 20th century,” said Dr. Martin. “And we finally know what a greenback cutthroat trout really is.”

The study has triggered a thorough re-evaluation of the taxonomy, classification, and range of cutthroat trout in Colorado.  The re-evaluation will likely cause greenbacks to be listed as “endangered” rather than “threatened” as they are currently listed.

Scott Willoughby of the Denver Post wrote that the findings arrive with “good news, bad news, and a dash of indifference” for the angling community.  “Purely from an outdoorsman’s perspective, the delineation between hooking into a genetically compromised greenback hybrid in Rocky Mountain National Park and the offspring of a pure Bear Creek greenback — fishing is prohibited in Bear Creek — is likely to remain negligible.”

The “good news” is that greenbacks are still alive.  The “bad news” is that species previously thought to be pure greenbacks are actually hybrid species, disappointing any anglers who thought they had nabbed a pure greenback.  With his “point of indifference” Willoughby misses an opportunity to rally sportsmen to support the conservation efforts needed to bring pure greenbacks back to sustainable population levels.

 This highlights a perplexing theme regarding sportsmen and conservation, where many seem to care more about the sport than the species on which it depends.  Recall the National Wildlife Federation study cited in my first post that found only 59% of sportsmen agree that global warming is occurring.  Sportsmen have an obligation to ensure that that the fish and wildlife we value, especially the rare species we covet, remain healthy and vibrant.

The startling evidence of this latest research should not be considered a point of indifference, but a call to action to increase awareness of the need for conservation.  To this end, the Cutthroat Trout Recovery Team is working with Colorado State University to further reexamine the physical characteristics of Colorado cutthroats.  The results of this examination will be used to clarify the evolutionary relationships among native cutties.  In turn, this ongoing research will inform a decision process on how to move forward with conservation efforts.

Already, a protected broodstock of Bear Creek cutthroats is being propagated in the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s hatchery system.  The offspring will be used to establish wild populations in the future.  With adequate support from sportsmen, perhaps pure greenbacks will prosper and we can enjoy the thrill of angling this beautiful and unique species. Without support from anglers, we may lose the opportunity to see them in the wild ever again.

Moffat Collection System Part 2: The Conservationists Perspective

In my last post, I dissected Denver Water’s mitigation plan for the proposed Moffat Collection System expansion.  In this post, I will present a critique of the plan based on the views of Trout Unlimited (TU) and other conservationists who feel the plan is insufficient to effectively mitigate the future harm the project will cause.  Last week, I sat down with Randy Scholfield, Communications Director for TU’s Western Water Project, who has been keeping a close eye on the project and involved in much of the conversation around it.

Randy Scholfield, Communications Director for Trout Unlimited’s Western Water Project. Source: Colorado Trout Unlimited

“The current mitigation plan only addresses previous damage to habitats in the upper Colorado system, and it doesn’t address future impacts of the project,” said Scholfield.  Scholfield is referring to the impact of the existing diversions by Denver Water and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (NCWCD), which amount to around 60 percent of native flows of the upper Colorado River basin. NCWCD’s proposed Windy Gap Firming Project, combined with Denver Water’s Moffat expansion project, will draw an additional 15 percent of native flows from the upper Colorado basin, according to a TU press release.

“While the mitigation package the [Colorado Wildlife] Commission approved [June 9, 2011] is an improvement over the plans Denver and Northern offered originally, it is not enough to protect the rivers and streams of the upper Colorado River basin from the impacts of the new projects,” said Drew Peternell, Director of TU’s Colorado Water Project.  Indeed, most of the actions outlined in Denver Water’s Mitigation Plan and Enhancement Plan appear to address problems that are already occurring, namely high water temperatures, low flows, and damaged habitat.

According to an October 26, 2012 letter from seven conservation groups, including Western Resource Advocates, Colorado Environmental Coalition, and American Rivers, parts of the Fraser and Upper Colorado system already suffer from high temperatures and sedimentation issues.  “Already sections of Ranch Creek, the Fraser River, and the Upper Colorado exceed water quality standards for temperature and are listed on the Colorado 303(d) list of impaired waters.” Citing “obvious” and “significant” sedimentation issues, the letter calls for mandatory flushing flows or mitigation measures, such as channel reconfiguration to support sediment transport at lower flows.

Trout Unlimited supports these requests.  TU, along with Western Resource Advocates, and the Colorado Environmental Coalition, outlined seven “smart principles” to guide water supply management and development efforts.  In the spirit of these principles, TU is asking Denver Water and NCWCD to take the following measures:

A Colorado River headwaters stream just below the Denver Water diversion point. Source: Summit County Voice

  • Reconnecting the Colorado River by creating a “bypass” around Windy GapReservoir
  • A halt to diversions when water temperatures are on the verge of state “impaired” standards – water warm enough to kill trout.
  • Adequate spring flushing flows to keep the rivers healthy and sustain riparian areas that are critical to wildlife.
  • An ongoing adaptive management plan to monitor stream conditions andidentify needed habitat restoration projects.
  • An endowment fund to pay for those restoration projects as an “insurance policy” for river health.

“Basically they’re turning a river into a creek,” said Scholfield. “They need to commit more money to habitat, as the current plan doesn’t address future impacts.  Taking these steps will keep the river off of life support.”  TU estimates that these additional measures could cost “several millions dollars,” according to Scholfield.  At the onset of this project, TU made the decision to cooperate with Denver Water in an effort to ensure proper mitigation, instead of fighting to kill the project entirely.

This spirit of cooperation between the utilities, conservationists, and western slope communities was outlined in the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement.  However, “at this point, Denver Water is firmly resisting further concessions,” said Scholfield.  The conservation community echoes this sentiment in its letter to the Corps of Engineers:

Any suggestion that the Cooperative Agreement has somehow reduced or eliminated concerns about the Moffat Collection System Expansion Project or the need to rigorously evaluate its impacts and design mitigation is simply wrong. Our constituencies are not satisfied with Moffat Collection System Expansion Project moving forward without significant further environmental disclosure and mitigation requirements.”

The letter comes in response to a June 5 letter from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to President Obama, urging an “expeditious conclusion” to the federal permitting process for the Moffat project.  In his letter, Gov. Hickenlooper cites the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, which was formed in May 2012, as an approval by the conservation community.

“Governor Hickenlooper’s letter has not been a help to our cause,” Scholfield said.  “He essentially told the President that everyone is happy, we need to fast track this project.”  When in fact, there is clearly staunch opposition to both projects, at least until additional commitments to mitigation.  “Trout Unlimited is trying to raise public visibility to issues like this…people care…this is where we play and where we live…this is what makes Colorado Colorado.”

Governor Hickenlooper called for approval of Denver Water’s Environmental Impact Statement by the end of the year, followed by a Record of Decision early next year.  Whether the project is approved in its current state remains to be seen, yet the effects of Front Range diversions on the Fraser River are already too evident.  Speaking on behalf of Defend the Colorado, fishing guide Terry Peterson describes the visible effects he has seen on the Fraser in the video below.

Click on the picture of Terry to see him describe adverse effects on the Fraser. Source: Defend the Colorado

In a future post, I will examine how TU scientists are working to make river systems more resilient to higher temperatures, whether caused by increased diversions to the Front Range, or climate change.

Dissecting Denver Water’s Mitigation Plan for the Moffat Collection System

If you follow Colorado water issues in the least, you are probably already aware of Denver Water’s proposed Moffat Collection System Project.  The proposed $250 million project will increase Gross Dam on South Boulder Creek by 125 feet, increasing Gross Reservoir by 77,000 acre-feet (AF) and tripling its capacity.

The Moffat Collection System Project addresses three major supply challenges:

  1. A future water shortfall projected to be 34,000 acre-feet by 2030
  2. Risk of running out of water in a future drought
  3. A “serious imbalance” in Denver Water’s collection system
    1. About 80% of Denver Water supplies funnel through Strontia Springs Reservoir, which could be threatened by droughts or wildfires such as the massive Hayman Fire that burned in 2002.

The project will provide 18,000 AF of additional supply for Denver Water customers and will come primarily from the Fraser River in Grand County using existing water rights.  Water will only be taken from May-July in wet years, per Denver Water’s existing rights, and no water would be taken in dry years.

It is important to note that Nearly half the amount of needed water, about 16,000 acre-feet, is expected to come from additional conservation and recycling efforts. The remainder of the shortfall will be met by expanding Gross Rese2003, Denver Water notified The Army Corps of Engineers of their intent to file a permit.  In its response, the Corps provided a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and

“determined that reductions in flow during runoff could decrease aquatic availability in the Fraser River basin and the four headwater tributaries of the Williams Fork River…the reductions in flow could also result in increasing frequency of approach or exceeding stream temperature standards at some locations.”

The Draft EIS (to which the Corps’ link is broken) also noted that temperatures in the Fraser River and Ranch Creek have already been recorded at levels exceeding the maximum standard temperature, according to data collected by the Grand County Water Information Network in 2007 and 2008.

Table compiled by author. Sourced from Denver Water mitigation plan.

One can see that most of the water will be sourced from the Fraser and Upper Williams Fork Rivers, and their tributaries.  Key mitigation goals for these rivers include $72,500 for “reestablishing a viable fishery” for two cutthroat species: the Colorado River cutthroat and the federally threatened Greenback.

How does one build a new habitat for these species? First, Denver Water will find a headwater stream in Grand County that currently doesn’t support cutties, and construct a barrier at the downstream end. Next, it will “eradicate all the trout in the stream” upstream of the barrier. Finally, it will then reintroduce “a core conservation population” of cutthroat trout. All of these steps will be funded by Denver Water and executed by the Colorado Department of Wildlife.

A second tenet of the mitigation plan for the Moffat System includes a stream temperature monitoring and reduction in diversion plan.  Under this provision, Denver Water will provide funds for a real-time temperature monitoring station on the existing Ranch Creek gaging station.  When water daily maximum temperatures rise above 70.2o F, levels between July 15 and August 31, Denver Water will forego up to 250 AF of diversions from the Fraser River Collection System.

Additionally, in a third tenet of the mitigation plan, Denver Water will provide up to $750,000 for stream habitat restoration in the Fraser, Williams Fork and their tributaries.

In total, the mitigation plan is estimated to cost over $7.2 million, and has already been approved by the Colorado Wildlife Commission, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.  Next, the plan goes back to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is expected to release its final environmental impact study later this year.  If approved, construction could start as soon as 2015.

An angler on a very shallow Fraser River

Currently, Denver Water and other water providers divert around 65% of the native flows of the Upper Colorado River Basin to the Front Range.  If the Moffat Collection System Project and the Windy Gap Firming Project are both completed, the portion of native water diverted to the

Front Range from the Upper Colorado could reach an annual average of 85%, “pushing the Colorado and Fraser rivers…to the brink of ecological collapse,” according to a report from Trout Unlimited, Western Resource Advocates, and Colorado Environmental Coalition.

While the authors of this report include the Gross Reservoir expansion in their list of acceptable planned projects, they also cite issues yet to be resolved. A subsequent post on this blog will examine these and other issues raised by community stakeholders in response to the Denver Water project, and will also examine some proposed alternatives.

Fishing in the Extremes

A recent poll of anglers and hunters shows that 66 percent of us believe we have a moral responsibility to confront global warming to protect our children’s future.  Interestingly, only 59 percent of sportsmen actually agree that global warming is occurring, according to the poll taken by the National Wildlife Federation.  These numbers imply that 7 percent of sportsmen think something should be done to curtail global warming, even if they don’t believe it is actually happening.  For some commentary from a seemingly representative demographic of sportsmen, check the blog comments on a recent Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership video and post

Here’s another statistic on climate change. Last week, the National Snow & Ice Data Center in Boulder reported that on September 16 arctic sea ice cover reached a historic low.  This breaks the previous “minimum extent” record set in 2007 and is nearly 50 percent lower than the average coverage between 1979 and 2000.


An image of the Arctic sea ice on September 16, 2012, the day that the National Snow and Ice Data Center identified to be the minimum reached in 2012. The yellow outline shows the average sea ice minimum from 1979 through 2010. (NSIDC)

Despite this and other evidence of climate change, 41 percent of sportsmen are still skeptical. Understanding climate change isn’t easy because it involves some seriously complex science. But for the sake of fish and wildlife habitats everywhere, I will do my best to explain what is going on, and what it means for the fish.

Recent trends in the weather provide a great example of extreme weather events that result from climate change. As recently as September 25, the US Drought Monitor showed that 65 percent of the contiguous US is in some form of drought.  A year ago, this number was just 30 percent. In the West it is even worse, with 77 percent facing drought vs. 19 percent a year ago.

Winter weather has been extreme in recent years as well.  If you like to play in the snow, you’ll recall that the most recent Colorado ski season was one of the worst some have ever had, with the lowest snowfall levels in 30 years.  This is a stark contrast from 2010-2011 season when snow sports enthusiasts reveled in the record snowfall of 525 inches.



Anglers certainly felt the effects of these extreme weather events. Last spring and summer brought record runoff that made many rivers and creeks look like chocolate milk.  This summer, low flows and high water temperatures forced voluntary bans in some areas, including the Yampa in Steamboat.

It is true that rapidly changing weather conditions are more the rule in the Rockies than the exception, “just wait 10 minutes” if you disagree.  But this level of volatility in the climate (which is weather over the long term) isn’t part of the typical pattern.  Further, climate scientists believe that climate volatility and extremes will increase with climate change. That isn’t good for the fish, and it isn’t good for anglers.

For example, consider the implications of the cutthroat trout, the most diverse trout species in North America and a true Colorado native.  “Cutties” are already facing pressure from non-native species like rainbow, brown and brook trout.  According to hydrologic models developed by Trout Unlimited, the US Forest Service, and others, cutthroat trout are expected to lose as much as 58% of their habitat under climate change.

In comparison, “brookies” are predicted to lose 77% of their suitable habitat, browns 48%, and rainbows 35%.  In total, suitable habitats for any four of these species is predicted to decline by 47%.  It’s hard to imagine what fishing would be like if climate change eliminated nearly 50% of our fishing spots.


This plot shows the length of predicted suitable habitat for four species of trout under current conditions and under climate-change scenarios for the 2040s and 2080s. Source: Trout Unlimited.

So what is actually causing these projected declines in habitats?  In short, climate scientists expect warm and dry climates to become even warmer and dryer under climate change. Declining snowfall levels and rising temperatures as a result of climate change will make the already arid Southwest even drier.

Specifically, they predict lower winter precipitation levels.  When winter precipitation does occur, rising temperatures will cause more of it to fall as rain, meaning even less snowpack to fill our streams in the spring.  Additionally, rising temperatures also mean earlier and faster snowmelt.  Recall how the rivers looked during record runoff of spring 2011 that spiked flows substantially and made fishing much more difficult.

The arctic ice (or lack thereof) plays a part in all of this too.  Like the cubes in your iced tea, the earth’s ice helps keep us cool, no matter where you live.  As NSIDC lead scientist Ted Scambos said, “This will gradually affect climate in the areas where we live…we have a less polar pole—and so there will be more variations and extremes.”

Though extreme fly fishing sounds like fun, 50 percent less fish habitat is definitely not an extreme I’d like to live with.