Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The effects of climate change are already affecting Montana’s outdoor recreation, but with predictions of even more heat and drought by 2050, the outdoor recreation industry stands to lose thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in earnings, according to a new report.

The Montana Wildlife Federation last week released a new report titled "The Economic Impact of Climate Change in Montana,” which concludes that, as climate change effects worsen, Montana’s outdoor recreation industry could lose more than 8,800 jobs and $263 million in labor earnings annually by mid-century.

The recreation industry is broken into sectors of hunting, fishing, winter sports, wildlife viewing and sight-seeing, and the national parks. Mid-century includes 2040-2069 because that’s the time frame used in the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment to predict future risks.

By mid-century, the average temperature in Montana is predicted to increase at least 6°F, with August experiencing the largest projected change. Precipitation patterns are expected to alter, with an overall increase in annual precipitation but a decrease during the hot summer months, exacerbating drought.

Montana’s national parks - Glacier and Yellowstone - face the largest losses by mid-century - more than 3,800 jobs and $107 million in earnings - due to the increasing risk of wildfires and tourists wanting to avoid the associated smoke. While wildfires inside the parks pose dangers - extreme weather caused the 2017 Sprague Fire to cover almost 17,000 acres of Glacier Park and almost destroyed the Sperry Chalet - fires outside the park, as far away as California or northern Canada, can send smoke to cover the region for days or weeks.

Fishing and sight-seeing/wildlife watching are next in line to take economic hits.

Like the parks, sight-seeing is also negatively affected by wildfire smoke. Plus, drought, wildfire and extreme heat takes its toll on wildlife, especially those more dependent on cold environments, reducing the likelihood that tourists will catch a glimpse of mountain goats or bighorn sheep during the heat of the day. So these two activities could see a loss of almost 1,700 jobs and $44 million, according to the report.

Montana is already seeing its fisheries decline because of reduced streamflows and warmer waters due to erratic amounts of snowpack, earlier snowmelt and rain in the valleys when it used to snow. Brown trout populations are crashing in rivers in the southwestern part of the state while hoot-owl fishing restrictions are now a regular summer occurrence. As these trends worsen, the fish outfitting industry could lose almost 1,900 jobs and $62 million in earnings.

fire smoke

With climate change causing snow to dwindle overall and be very unpredictable year-to-year, jobs associated with snow sports like skiing and snowmobiling will drop by almost 1,000 with an associated loss of $35 million in earnings by mid-century.

Finally, climate change is causing some big game species to change the way they move across the landscape while the populations of others are struggling to endure more disease and pestilence made worse by the changing climate. As a result, big game hunting could decline by up to 25% by mid-century, translating to a loss of almost 500 jobs and nearly $15 million in earnings annually.

The Montana Wildlife Federation hired Missoula-based Power Consulting, Inc., to produce the report, which is an update of a similar report published in 2015. While the predicted loss of 8,800 jobs is significant, the 2015 report predicted even worse losses - as many as 11,000 jobs would be lost along with $281 million in labor earnings.

What changed between 2015 and 2023? The climate change data improved while the hunting data became less reliable, said Donovan Power, Power Consulting principle researcher.

“If you look at winter sports, we feel better about the (job decline) now, because there’s better science behind it,” Power said. “Last time, it was based on the 3rd National Climate Assessment, which broke Montana in two and put the western half with the Pacific Northwest and the eastern half in the Great Plains, which stretches all the way to Texas. Since then there’s been better climate modeling and we have the Montana Climate Assessment, giving us more Montana-specific data we can drill into.”

In 2015, the report predicted a 33% decline in employment in winter sports, but this year’s report predicts a 19% decrease. The decline estimated in the 2023 report is less than the 2015 predictions for winter sports, wildlife watching and hunting.

But the predictions for hunting are less reliable because a data source has been lost. Florida-based Southwick Associates used to provide economic data on hunting, both nationwide and for each state, and that’s what the 2015 report used. But recently, Southwick Associates stopped providing state-level information, so Powers Consulting has had to use numbers that are less exact.

“(Southwick) still produce a national dataset, but they no longer have that state-level data,” Power said. “The national dataset shows fewer people are going out to hunt, and they’re less successful when they do hunt. But we don’t have the same data at the state level. So while we feel better about the climate data and how it will affect hunting, the numbers in terms of hunting jobs is less certain than it was before.”

However, when it comes down to hunting per se, climate change is affecting the odds for every hunter. In 2022, Montana saw the lowest number of hunters participating in the season as well as the lowest total harvest. Increasingly severe weather, long-term warming trends, increasing fragmentation and loss of habitat, and human population growth all combine to create a challenging landscape for big game hunting, according to the report.

Power suggests that hunting seasons might need to shift away from the traditional autumn time frame.

“The numbers are saying elk are way over-objective, and there are more landowners complaining about elk wintering in their fields. To me, part of this climate change effect is allowing elk to stay in the high country longer, so hunters can’t be as effective. And then (elk) winter in the valleys once rifle season is over. We’re going to need to see some sort of change in the seasons if hunters are to be as effective as they were in the past,” Power said.

In just a few decades, outdoor recreation has grown to become a large percentage of Montana’s economy. To have it then decline as much as the report predicts could put the state and its residents in a bind.

The report doesn’t suggest any solutions, although it’s clear that jobs will be saved if climate change doesn’t continue to worsen. To that end, the Montana Wildlife Federation suggests “the urgent need for climate resilience legislation.”

“Every altered migration route, impacted rut and every intensified wildfire is a chapter in the story of our changing climate,” said Frank Szollosi, Montana Wildlife Federation executive director. “Many Montanans derive their livelihoods from these outdoor sectors, making the stakes even higher. What we witness is a testament to the urgent need for informed climate policies that prioritize the preservation of Montana's rich wildlife and landscapes,” Szollosi said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at