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As Climate Warms American West, Iconic Trout In Jeopardy

As Climate Warms American West, Iconic Trout In Jeopardy

Record droughts and declining winter snowpack alters streamflow and trout habitat. Scientists use electrofishing to monitor trout populations.

In the mountain streams of the American West, the trout rules. People don't just catch this fish; they honor it. And spend lots of money pursuing it.

But some western trout may be in trouble. Rivers and streams are getting warmer and there's often less water in them. Scientists suspect a changing climate is threatening this iconic fish.

I joined two such scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey as they drove up a mountain road in Montana, in the northern Rockies, a place dense with stands of Douglas fir and aspen trees and braided with mountain streams.

Here, wildlife is part of daily conversation. "I shot an elk maybe like three miles up that drainage," says Clint Muhlfeld as he negotiates a narrow dirt road. He and fellow fish scientist Robert Al Chokhachy trade hunting stories to pass the time as we climb higher toward a trout stream they're studying. Today it's not elk they're looking for, but native cutthroat trout.

They're studying the trout's world, which is changing radically as the climate warms. The region has seen record droughts and declining winter snowpack, which means measly stream flow after the spring melt. The water is also warmer these days in the streams.

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