‘We Have the Most to Lose’

By Beacon Staff

Todd Tanner is an avid hunter and angler based at the foot of the Swan Range near Bigfork where he lives on a 25-acre plot with his family. He said he doesn’t align himself with either the Republican or Democratic party. His lifelong experience in the outdoors has turned his attention to what he believes is the most important issue facing sportsmen: climate change.

“We have the most to lose,” he says. “Our future is at stake here.”

It’s an opinion that can ruffle feathers among his colleagues, many of whom stand on the other side of the debate over global warming. It can also spark outcry from skeptics who still raise charges of distortion and disbelief, despite a steady stream of scientific reports warning of dire consequences.

Amid the political bickering, Tanner founded the local nonprofit group called Conservation Hawks, hoping to awaken sportsmen to what he believes are real threats to the heritage of hunting and angling and the unique ecosystem of Northwest Montana.

Wildfire seasons are burning longer and more severe. Severe drought has afflicted nearly every state in the West. In Montana, there have been nine climate-related disaster declarations since 2011, including one earlier this month, when Gov. Steve Bullock declared a flood emergency after temperatures swung nearly 60 degrees and put 30 of the state’s 56 counties under high-water warnings.

Despite an abundant, cold winter across the U.S., the last three months account for the eighth warmest period on record for combined global and ocean surface temperatures between December and February, according to the National Climate Data Center. Last year was tied for the fourth hottest, and nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000.

Tanner believes all of this is damaging Montana’s sporting heritage while hurting his kids’ future chances of experiencing hunting and angling in the state’s wide-open spaces. Citing a multitude of reports, including a recent publication by the National Wildlife Federation, along with first-hand experience, Tanner says big game populations and their habitats are suffering under the impacts of severe drought, rising temperatures and greater weather extremes. Fisheries are similarly being harmed due to climate change, Tanner says.

“It’s obvious what’s happening because we can see it with our own eyes, and everything we see corroborates the science,” he says.

But not everyone agrees, and in today’s landscape, climate change remains a touchy subject and source of perennial conflict, particularly in the American West, where abundant outdoor opportunities hold a prominent position alongside energy development.

Last week Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency who helped craft the Obama administration’s new climate change plan, began a tour of the West by meeting with lawmakers and coal miners in North Dakota. The visit marked the beginning of an aggressive campaign that is expected to pick up steam in the coming months, as the federal government unveils the latest set of rules in June that will aim to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants, the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions. The final version of the administration’s Climate Action Plan is expected to be published by mid-2015, and would give states another year to devise compliance plans.

Similar to the new health care law, the climate plan is expected to be met with severe pushback among lawmakers and the energy industry.

But what about everyday residents?

Stanford University conducted a public opinion survey last year, and 79 percent of respondents in Montana agreed that global warming is occurring. Yet 48 percent said the federal government should do more to address warming and only 5 percent said warming was extremely important personally and was likely to influence voting.

In a separate poll, climate change ranked 19th on a list of Americans’ top priorities.

“For most people, it’s this amorphous thing that they just don’t experience in a personal way,” Tanner says. “Our point to sportsmen is that this is personal. It’s something that if you aren’t seeing it already wherever you are, you will see it.

“It’s going to change things in a way that you won’t like and it’s going to make it impossible to give those things to your kids and grandkids if we don’t deal with it now.”

Meanwhile, as the debate rages on, federal and state agencies are increasing attention on potential climate change impacts and emerging trends.

Flathead National Forest is currently revising its expansive management plan, and for the first time significant credence is being given to climate change as a factor in policy decisions.

A draft of the new plan states in its opening, “The intent of the planning framework is to create a responsive planning process that informs integrated resources management and allows the Forest Service to adapt to changing conditions, including climate change, and improve management based on new information and monitoring.”

Last week Scott Spaulding, fisheries program leader for the Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service, gave a presentation on how the changing climate is interacting with aquatic systems and cold water fish species. Speaking at the Swan Ecosystem Center, Spaulding said he has been overseeing a new pilot program in the Lolo National Forest and conducted a first-ever vulnerability assessment on a geographic scale of fisheries. The study’s findings are expected to be published later this year, and the program will likely be expanded regionally, including throughout the Flathead, according to Spaulding.

“We’re hoping to get to move the dial a little bit on our understanding of (climate change impacts) but also not just to wave the flag of the climate change boogey man. We need to understand where things are changing,” he said.

Flathead Lake approached the warmest temperatures on record last summer, and the biological station in Yellow Bay is analyzing the details and determining what impacts that trend might be having. Results are expected later this summer.

Last year an outbreak of disease-carrying midges that thrive in warm weather killed nearly 200 deer, leading the state to reduce tags for districts north and west of the Missouri River. Moose populations, which seek colder climates, have mysteriously dwindled, leading to a statewide study to try and determine why. Last year also saw four river closures due to warm temperatures and low stream flows.

Dan Vermillion, chairman of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, which is largely responsible for shaping policy and making final decisions for the state’s outdoors regulations, predicts the general hunting season will need to be moved back two weeks in the coming years to adapt to changing weather patterns that are affecting hunters’ abilities to chase game. Although several factors are playing into recent low harvest numbers, climate change is clearly a big one, he said.

“There really are impacts on sportsmen as a result of climate change,” said Vermillion, who owns the guiding company Sweetwater Travel Company in Livingston.

“I don’t think climate change should be a political issue. It affects all of us, whether you’re a wheat farmer, an angler, a hunter, a cherry farmer. The sooner we recognize that and adapt to it, the better off we are.”

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