Climate Change on the Creek


Chaco sitting in the shallow, warm water of Rock Creek

Rock Creek, Montana   Weather is warm in the middle of the day even in the mountains of the northern Rockies, but at the end of July and early August, that’s hardly a surprise. The nights are still comfortable and the dawn is cool. There was smoke coming up the canyon so there must have been a fire somewhere, but the fire season has not been terrible this year in Montana, and the skies have been sunny all day.

This is our seventh season on Rock Creek in the Silver Bullet. There have been a lot of changes over these years, and we have not been exempt from the impact of climate change. In fact we have a close-up view.

The beetles continue to thin out our tree stand from the rock strewn mountains to the creek. Sixteen trees were lost to them last year. Timber is stacked all over the acreage wedged in short stacks between trees. Longer lengths of pine are stretched along the camp road trying to convince a miller of their value or to find some useful way to contribute. Thirteen new trees have been planted here and there. A former tree planter from the old semi-hippie cooperatives who won a number of bids decades ago from the Forest Service planting throughout the West, spent some time yesterday putting rocks in a wagon, rolling them over, and then placing them around the seedlings for protection. These trees are the scout troop for fifty that are planned. An arborist has been consulted, so now there’s a tighter regimen on walking the trails marked with wood chips and a different view of the brush in the undergrowth with more concern for the reclamation project and less for the threat of fire the same undergrowth represents. Grass has been seeded on some bare spots.

Conserving the land is ambitious. Success for such stewardship is less certain. Water is needed for all of this to grow. Some of the trees already seem challenged. We spent some time witching for water. There’s supposedly a well driller who believes he can get over the bridge now. Witching seemed like magic, so of course I was skeptical, but balancing the copper wire, I couldn’t deny the fact that the copper crossed, feeling the magnetic forces that indicate water below, especially when four of us had the same results in the same spots.

Chaco and I fish Rock Creek, widely reckoned as one of the top ten trout streams in the United States and first in the minds of many fishermen. Three straight hot summers with early melts of the snowpack due to climate change have made Montana streams warmer. We’ve been told about “hoot owl” restrictions on many streams closing them at noon to allow the trout to recover because the water is too warm. On catch-and-release, you have to be quick about getting the fish back in the water in such conditions. Rock Creek is still open, but we noticed the water was warmer by several degrees from our first step off the banks. The water is also shallower than any other time we have been here.

Climate deniers need to get out of their penthouses, private planes and limousines and look around, maybe put their feet in the water, or walk along a forest trail. We can see the West changing right before our eyes, and it’s not pretty.