2012: A scorcher for the record books…

By Seth Wenger, Dan Dauwalter, Helen Neville and Chris Hunt

Last year was hot. The hottest year on record in the U.S., as a matter of fact. As trout

Some of the work TU is already doing will help arm our trout for a warming climate. Here, in Idaho, TU returned water–and spawning Yellowstone cutthroat trout–to Garden Creek by improving a rancher's irrigation practices.

anglers, we knew it—some of our favorite rivers closed to fishing for parts of the scorching-hot summer due to high water temperatures. Trophy trout water was off limits to us in Yellowstone National Park,  Montana, and in Colorado thanks to a miserably hot summer. Closing rivers like the Madison and the Yampa was the right thing to do—when water temperatures rise,  trout become stressed and many die after they’re released. Giving them a break was appropriate.

While the term “climate change” is still controversial, it’s hard not to notice that summer fishing closures—paticuarly here in the West—are more frequent than they used

Garden Creek after restoration, and ready for spawning cuttrhroats today, and well into the future, even if the climate continues to warm.

to be.  And it’s hard not to notice when water that should be so cold that it numbs your feet, even in high summer, is tepid at best. It’s hard not to notice the rising number of sweltering days, and news reports from all over the country about the increase in severe weather, both summer and winter. Sooner or later, anyone who enjoys trout fishing has to wonder: “What if the summers do keep getting hotter? Will the fishing get worse? Is this still going to be a trout stream in 20 or 30 years? Or should I start practicing my Bassmaster cast?”

That’s something those of us at TU have to consider as well. We’re a coldwater fisheries conservation organization, after all, and the vast majority of us spend our free time chasing the trout we work so hard to protect. We need to do our best to make sure the cold water stays cold. Over the last several years our Science Team has worked with our partners in conservation to better understand the temperature requirements of different trout species, and how trout distributions could change in the future if climate scientists’ projections are correct. We’re also developing methods to identify the best locations to perform restoration work that will help keep water cold for trout, both now and in the future.

And that brings us to the good news. Many of the projects that TU and its members work on right now will also keep water cooler in the future. Take the Western Water Project for example, which works to restore healthy stream flows to some of the most significant trout rivers in the West. Stream temperatures are typically warmest during summer when flows are low, and temperatures can soar even higher during drought conditions. Improving stream flows by restoring streamside habitat and using irrigation water more efficiently can buffer against warm summer temperatures. These tools and techniques will become absolutely critical in the future (for a dramatic example, see this video).

Or consider our restoration activities in Maggie Creek, Nevada, where stream-side vegetation has increased thanks to better cattle-grazing practices and groundwater levels are up by two feet in part due to the recolonization of beavers in the creek. These improvements help to release groundwater more slowly into streams over hot and dry periods and keep the water cold. Already, we’re seeing benefits for both the ranchers who raise cattle and for rare and native Lahontan cutthroat trout. The fish also benefited from the removal of several culvert barriers, opening up more habitat and giving them more choices when it comes to seeking refuge when water temperatures increase. These kinds of restoration activities make trout more resilient to problems like drought and wildfire, which climate scientists have predicted to become more frequent if the climate changes in the way they have predicted.

And while we use sound science as a foundation for all of our on-the-ground work, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of our restoration work is done by our volunteers—volunteers who fish, and who understand that the work they’re doing to arm trout streams against the impacts of climate change also protects their opportunity to cast to rising trout in cold water years from now.

So the next time your lace up your wading boots, know that most of the conservation work done on our trout waters ensures that something will be there waiting for that perfectly cast dry fly today … and for the fly your grandchild might cast a generation from now.

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