A Rancher And A Conservationist Forge An Unlikely Alliance Scientists suspect that warming air and rivers, as well as smaller winter snowpack, is endangering western trout. But on a ranch in Montana, methods to protect trout from the effects of cattle ranching are helping the trout become more resilient to the inevitable change in their environment.
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A Rancher And A Conservationist Forge An Unlikely Alliance

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A Rancher And A Conservationist Forge An Unlikely Alliance

A Rancher And A Conservationist Forge An Unlikely Alliance

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Trout fishing draws people from around the world to places like Ovando, Mont. Just ask the owner of Blackfoot Angler and Supplies, Kathy Schoendoerfer.

KATHY SCHOENDOERFER: Every state in the nation has been through this little shop in Ovando, Mont., population 50. And we've also had everybody from Russia, Latvia, a lot of Canadians, France, Finland, Brazil, Scotland, Germany, South Africa. We get a lot of business out here. You know, fly-fishing is huge.

MONTAGNE: Huge, but Western trout may be in trouble. The climate is changing. NPR's Christopher Joyce went to Montana, to see what's being done to protect the near-mythic fish from a warming world.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Schoendoerfer's one-room shop in Ovando is stocked with lures, fly-rods, boots - anything you'd need to wade into the nearby Blackfoot, famed river of trout.

On the Blackfoot, anglers will stand thigh-deep in rushing water and cast, Zen-like, for hours, awaiting the perfect bite. But this year hasn't been so good. The winter snow pack was small; and water temperatures were high, which hurts the trout. For a while, the Blackfoot was closed to fishing.

SCHOENDOERFER: If we don't have a snow pack, we don't have water in the mountains that come down all summer. And we get low waters; and then we have to close up the Blackfoot due to low flows, like we did this year.

JOYCE: Scientists have measured snow pack, and air and water temperatures as well. They confirm that on top of natural cycles of weather, climate is changing. Locals have noticed as well.

SCHOENDOERFER: I think people understand that there is climate change. They just don't know who to point fingers at.


RANDY MANNIX: My name is Randy Mannix, and I ranch with my brothers on a cattle ranch in western Montana.

JOYCE: Mannix's family has been ranching here for five generations. His cattle are now grass-fed. That requires a lot of pasture land, a lot of grass, and a lot of water. Several creeks run through Mannix's property. But there's been a lot of drought recently.


JOYCE: Whether it's from global warming or natural cycles, I'm not sure. But there is a difference.


JOYCE: Mannix leads me through tall grass to a creek. He diverts water from it, to irrigate his pastures and water his cattle. With us is Stan Bradshaw. He's with a conservation group called Trout Unlimited. Where Mannix sees irrigation, Bradshaw sees trout habitat.

STAN BRADSHAW: What you have here is a nursery. These tiny streams - you cross this in the road; you can't even see it - are literally, the lifeblood of the mainstem rivers that are trying to support native fish.

JOYCE: Bradshaw says two things are threatening that lifeblood - heavy cattle grazing, and a warming climate. The cattle muddy up and flatten out the streams with their hooves. A warmer climate dries up streams and overheats them. But he says there are solutions to the damage to trout caused by both cattle and a warmer climate.

BRADSHAW: Narrowing these over-widened stream channels, getting more depth in them so that water will flow more quickly through them, adding water back into the system where there wasn't enough water, planting trees and stream-side vegetation that would create shade.

JOYCE: That sounds like a lot of work. But Bradshaw and Mannix have been doing it here. Mannix keeps cattle out of the creek. He plants stream-side grass. He stops taking water out of the streams for his pastures and cattle when the water level is low. He says it works.

MANNIX: This particular spot used to be a broad mud-hole. It healed itself in less than five years, I'd say. This little section of the crick is about as ideal as you can get - where it's real narrow and deep, and it's all shaded with grass.

BRADSHAW: And this is ideal because part of getting temperature down is getting them out of the sun. And this grass, and the willows, and everything else just is an ideal way to get that done.

JOYCE: Although Trout Unlimited offers financial support for this, Mannix says it's a hard sell for many ranchers.

MANNIX: They're doing the same thing that their ancestors had done, and there shouldn't be anything wrong with it. The other part is, I think, they feel like if they give a little bit, they'll end up giving a lot. And like I say, in this area, water is so crucial, they don't want to jeopardize that.

JOYCE: But then, trout are precious too. Trout-fishing brings tens of millions of dollars to the state every year. Not as much as the value of cattle, but there is a mystique about trout in Montana. The writer Norman Maclean captured it, in what might be the most famous fishing book ever, "A River Runs Through It." It took place along the Blackfoot.

At her shop in Ovando, Kathy Schoendoerfer says she keeps selling out of copies. When she reads from the book, you can understand why.

SCHOENDOERFER: (Reading) Like many fly fishermen in western Montana, where the summer days are almost arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm, and the hope that a fish will rise.

I love this river. You know, you do fall in love. And you grow roots, and you never leave.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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