Report Projects Montana’s Economic Losses Due to Climate Change

The report estimates the state will lose 8,800 outdoor recreation jobs and $263 million in labor earnings annually if nothing is done to mitigate climate change

By Micah Drew
A bluebird day on Big Mountain at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Jan. 29, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Montana’s economy is projected to see a significant impact stemming from the state’s changing climate over the next 50 years, according to a new report commissioned by Helena-based conservation nonprofit Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF), centered around the tourism and outdoor recreation industries.

The report, prepared by Power Consulting Incorporated, predicts a potential loss of 8,800 outdoor recreation jobs and $263 million in labor earnings annually between 2040 and 2069 due to climate change in Montana. The tourism industry, anchored by Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, accounts for the majority of the state’s impacts.

“Montana’s hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts are the first to witness the changing climate’s tangible effects,” MWF Executive Director Frank Szollosi said in a press release. “We are the frontline observers. Every altered migration route, impacted rut and every intensified wildfire is a chapter in the story of our changing climate. Many Montanans derive their livelihoods from these outdoor sectors, making the stakes even higher. What we witness is a testament to the urgent need for informed climate policies that prioritize the preservation of Montana’s rich wildlife and landscapes.”

Using data form the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 6th Assessment, the 4th National Climate Assessment and the Montana Climate Assessment, the report models the effects of climate change across the state if no strategies are implemented to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, a “business as usual” scenario, and how various sectors of Montana’s economy will be affected. Industries that rely on natural commodities — namely tourism and recreation — see the biggest impacts.

Winter Recreation: Drawing on studies that indicate a decline in reliable snow cover around the Rocky Mountains, the report projects an average 19% decline in skier days at resorts across Montana. Previous studies have shown that Whitefish Mountain Resort could see a decrease of 56 skiable days by 2050. Combined with reports on snowmobiling recreation in the state, Montana is estimated to lose around 968 jobs and $34.9 million in labor earnings due to decreased snowfall.

“Winter sports are directly tied to residents’ quality of life,” the report states. “People choose to come and live in Montana because they can engage in winter sports. If the quality of the winter sports becomes so poor that residents no longer take part, then the quality of life for those user groups can dramatically decline.”

An angler fishes a stream in the Marion area on June 11, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Hunting and Fishing: Low winter snowpack, rain-on-snow events during the spring and warmer early summers shift peak streamflow earlier in the year, a trend that was seen in northwest Montana this year. Along with lower flows during summer, streams and lakes are expected to see continued rising water temperatures, which stress native fish populations and lead to limitations on fishing such as hoot owl closures.

For a statewide angling industry that provides more than 6,200 jobs, the report projects a 30% decline in overall fishing activity due to changes to the spring and summer climate over the next 50 years, a $60 million annual impact.

Hunting is expected to see less of an impact, with the report estimating that climate change will only affect expenditures by around 15 to 25%. The report states that roughly 70% of hunting expenditures in the state is related to big game, species that “appear to be resilient in the face of climate change,” though behavioral changes such as remaining in the high country longer could provide more obstacles to sportsmen.

Rising Wolf Mountain and Flinsch Peak in the Two Medicine Area of Glacier National Park on Oct. 8, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

National Park Visitation:  Montana is home to two of the nation’s top-10 most visited national parks, with Yellowstone and Glacier national parks receiving 4.8 million and 3 million visitors in 2021 Those visitors spent an estimated $7.2 million in the gateway regions, for a total economic boon to Montana of $1.1 billion, according to a National Park Service analysis published this year.

The economic report examined recorded instances of decreased park visitation over the years, including the 2022 floods that closed Yellowstone’s northern entrance, and wildfires in Glacier, two natural disaster events that are expected to become increasingly common with climate change.

Wildfires and wildfire smoke are shown to significantly impact visitation, data from Glacier and Waterson Lakes National Park shows. In 2003, when nearly 10% of Glacier’s acreage burned, visitation during August dropped by 50%. Meanwhile, across the border in Canada, Waterton’s visitation dropped by 15% despite no fires burning within the Canadian park itself.

The report states that continued wildfire and smoke problems around national parks are likely to decrease planned visits by tourists, in addition to the drastic declines seen when wildfires force closures in popular areas. The economic loss attributed to climate change impacts in Glacier and Yellowstone is projected to reach $107 million annually, impacting nearly 4,000 jobs.

“Collectively, these losses highlight what is at stake for Montana with respect to climate change,” the report concludes. “Every Montanan has a close connection to at least one of these outdoor recreation industries and likely many, if not all of them. When we consider the family members and friends that are dependent on these industries, and the time that we personally invest in each of these different sectors, the impact is no longer an academic exercise.”

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