climate change and rivers

"River recreation is core to the Missoula way of life. We must work to begin to mitigate the damaging effects of climate change if we want to save our relationship with our rivers."

By Susan Teitelman, Zoey Greenberg and Devin Filicicchia, graduate students at the University of Montana, have been working on a project aiming to connect the impacts of climate change to Missoula's river recreation community. 

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What does it look like for river recreationists?

General impacts

New weather patterns may decrease snowfall, make peak runoff earlier, and reduce river flow, causing a disruption to the recreation industry that depends on nature: skiing, snowboarding, mountain/rock/ice climbing, rafting, kayaking, canoeing, fly fishing, birding, and so forth.

In Montana, outdoor recreation generates 71,000 direct jobs, $2.2 billion in wages and salaries, and $286 million in tax revenue. Climate change jeopardizes the very outdoor recreation activities that bolster our local economy, such as fly fishing, paddling, and birding.

According to the organization Environment Montana, climate change is causing Montana’s winters to become warmer and wetter and summers to become hotter and drier. Because tourism in Montana is a $2.2 billion dollar industry responsible for tens of thousands of jobs, a changing climate will have serious consequences for our state’s economy. By mid-century, big game hunting “is expected to drop by 15%” which will mean loss of 1,600 jobs and $39 million in earnings from employment. Similar numbers are predicted for the fishing and snow sport industries.

The decrease in outdoor recreation tourism due to COVID-19 has had a major effect on several sectors of the Montana economy. River and fishing outfitters, guides, hotels, airports, and other tourism-dependent businesses were hit hard. Across the state, many businesses have struggled, and some may be forced to close. As long as the effects of climate change continue, this will impact Montana’s tourism industry and economy in similar, if not slower, ways.

fly fishing

With storms being more frequent and more powerful, polluted runoff will increase from urban and agricultural areas, picking up pollutants from the landscape and carrying them to nearby streams. These pollutants enter the food web and compromise the health of many species, including the fish species we cast for, and the prey they consume.

Additional runoff will cause increased sediment levels, lower amounts of dissolved oxygen, both of which are detrimental to the health of trout.

Decreased snowpack will result in lower water levels for rivers in stream. Shallower water warms up more quickly, and warm water has less dissolved oxygen than cold water. All living things require oxygen, including aquatic species. Without adequate levels of dissolved oxygen, fish and insects understandably suffer.


Boating, as we know it is an activity that is incredibly vulnerable to changes in hydrologic conditions that may be disrupted by climate change.

Rising temperatures will cause more precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow, reducing the natural reservoir that feeds our rivers through drier summer months.

With decreased snowpack, there will be less runoff to feed our rivers in the spring, causing river levels to be lower, and rapids to be smaller.

More frequent and more powerful storms will increase polluted runoff from urban and agricultural areas, picking up pollutants and carrying them directly to our rivers.


Many of us are accustomed to the robust chatter of birds when we float the Clark Fork, enjoy a day of peaceful casting, or simply walk the river trail through downtown Missoula with our binoculars in hand. This is because waterways provide habitat for a plethora of unique resident bird species, as well as those that migrate through Montana on their way to further destinations.

Climate change impacts the phenology (otherwise known as the timing of life history events) for birds, many of which follow a calendar based on internal and external cues. Shifting temperatures and precipitation patterns can alter the timing for migratory species arriving back to breeding grounds, which can pose a problem if, for example, a bird returns to a nest still covered in snow. Here in the Rocky Mountains, robins, the quintessential harbingers of spring, now arrive two weeks earlier than they did a decade ago. Can they adapt? We hope so.

Climate change also impacts snowpack levels, which in turn affects river temperatures and oxygen levels. All aquatic invertebrates need oxygen, and many require specific water temperatures to survive. Eagles, ospreys, and insectivorous birds rely on a healthy aquatic food web for survival - what impacts one, impacts all.

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(406) 541-9287

PO Box 9201

Missoula, MT 59807

Office closed due to COVID-19

802 E. Front St.

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