A Rancher And A Conservationist Forge An Unlikely Alliance

Nov 15, 2013
Originally published on November 15, 2013 9:08 pm

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

"Every state in the nation has been through this little shop in Ovando, Montana, population 50," says Schoendoerfer with a mix of pride and perhaps a little fatigue. "And we've also had everybody from Russia, Latvia. We get 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."

But Western trout may be in trouble. The climate is changing and biologists are headed to trout country to find out the effect on this iconic fish.

And Schoendoerfer's one-room shop in Ovando is at the heart of that country. It's stocked with lures, fly-rods, boots — anything you'd need to wade into the nearby Blackfoot, the 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's snowpack was small and water temperatures were high, which hurts the trout. For a while, the Blackfoot was closed to fishing. "If we don't have a snowpack," says Schoendoerfer, "we don't have water in the mountains that comes 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."

Scientists have measured snowpack, and air and water temperatures as well. They confirm that on top of natural cycles of weather, the climate is changing. Locals have noticed as well. "I think people understand that there is climate change," she says, "they just don't know who to point fingers at."

Someone who has noticed these changes in climate is Randy Mannix, who shares a cattle ranch with his brothers not far from Ovando in western Montana. Mannix's family has been ranching here for five generations. His cattle now are grass-fed, and 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.

"Whether it's from global warming or natural cycles, I'm not sure," says the quiet-spoken Mannix, "but there is a difference."

Mannix, dressed in Carhartt overalls and muddy boots, takes 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, with a conservation group called Trout Unlimited. Where Mannix sees irrigation, Bradshaw sees trout habitat.

"What you have here is a nursery," Bradshaw says. "These tiny streams — you cross this in the road, [and] you can't even see it. They're literally the life blood of the main-stem rivers that are trying to support native fish."

Bradshaw says two things are threatening that life-blood: 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. Things like "narrowing these over-wide stream channels, getting more depth in them so 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."

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 stream-flow is low. He says it works.

"This particular spot used to be a broad mud-hole," he says, pointing to what is now a narrow stream-bed with clear, rushing water running through it. "It healed itself in less than five years, I'd say. This little section of the creek is about as ideal as you can get, where it's real narrow and deep and it's all shaded with grass." Adds Bradshaw: "And this is ideal because part of getting temperature down is getting them [streams] out of the sun. And this grass and the willows and everything else just is an ideal [way] of getting that done."

Although Trout Unlimited financially supports some of this environmental work, Mannix says it's still a hard sell for many ranchers. He says many worry that if they give some of their water rights up for trout, eventually they'll end up giving up a lot more. And water is precious in western Montana.

But then so are trout. 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 — and she does it with the kind of emotion you might expect from a life-long trout enthusiast — you can understand why. " 'Like many fly fishermen in western Montana,' " she reads, " ' 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.' "

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CREEK)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF WALKING THROUGH BRUSH)

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.