A sign warns local residents in Bigfork that the fire danger is high in much of the Flathead Valley. Credit: Justin Franz / MTFP

With above-average temperatures expected to continue into August, exacerbating the “severe drought” seen in parts of western Montana, state and local officials are announcing new restrictions to protect fish and prevent wildfires. 

The new rules come as Gov. Greg Gianforte Tuesday asked the federal government to declare a “drought disaster” in 11 counties, freeing up federal funding to aid communities, especially in agricultural areas. Those included in Gianforte’s request are Flathead, Lincoln, Glacier, Toole, Sanders, Lake, Pondera, Mineral, Missoula, Ravalli and Sheridan counties.

“Relief is needed as swiftly as possible, particularly for our agricultural producers, who are seeing impacts to forage and stock water availability due to drought conditions and low water levels,” the governor wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. 

The letter also cited the fact that the Flathead River is flowing at a third of its normal average for this time of year and that Flathead Lake — a key part of northwest Montana’s tourism-based economy — is two feet lower than it normally would be for this time of year. The drop in water has forced many boat owners to remove their vessels from the lake and is worrying business owners who rely on summer boaters. 

On Wednesday, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks instituted full fishing closures and “hoot-owl” restrictions on numerous rivers and streams in western Montana due to the continued heat. Full fishing closures included the Madison River from the Warm Springs Day Use Area to the Madison Dam and portions of the Clark Fork River, specifically within 100 yards of where that river meets the St. Regis River, Cedar Creek or Fish Creek. Hoot-owl restrictions, which prohibit fishing between 2 p.m. and midnight, were announced for the Clark Fork River from the confluence with the Flathead River to the confluence of Warm Springs Creek and Silver Bow Creek; sections of the Big Hole River; and the Gallatin River from the confluence with the Missouri River to Nixon Bridge near the confluence with the East Gallatin River.

Last week, FWP officials in Region 1, which encompasses northwest Montana, announced they were considering instituting hoot-owl restrictions on the Flathead River and others in the area for the first time ever. As of Wednesday morning, however, that step had not been taken. 

To reduce stress on fish, FWP encourages anglers to land fish quickly, to keep them in the water as much as possible by limiting or even avoiding taking photos of them, and to gently remove hooks. If people see sick or dead fish, they are encouraged to report them online

Meanwhile, officials in northwest Montana were instituting Stage I fire restrictions — beginning Saturday, July 29, at 12:01 a.m. — prohibiting campfires in most areas or smoking outside unless inside a vehicle or in an area cleared of all flammable materials. The campfire ban included Flathead, Lincoln and Sanders counties, the Flathead and Kootenai national forests, Glacier National Park, and land managed by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

Flathead County Fire Warden Lincoln Chute said that firefighters have been dealing with two or three new wildfires every afternoon, but that in most instances they’ve been able to get them under control. Many are human-caused, including from escaped campfires or vehicles being parked in dry grass, but others have been lighting caused. It’s only a matter of time, Chute said, before one of those fires isn’t caught in time. 

 “We’ve been lucky so far in catching these fires because if one of these fires does get established, it’s going to be very hard to get it under control.”

Flathead County Fire Warden Lincoln Chute

“We’ve been lucky so far in catching these fires because if one of these fires does get established, it’s going to be very hard to get it under control,” he said. 

Chute urged local residents to clean out their rain gutters, cut tall grass and move flammable materials away from their homes. He also encouraged people to make sure their house numbers are visible so firefighters can see them. 

Chute said northwest Montana has not gotten a lot of rain in recent weeks and that woodland fuels are drying quickly. He said it was particularly notable that some of the fires that departments have been responding to are on north-facing slopes, topography that tends to hold moisture longer than other places. 

After last weekend’s heat that saw temperatures go above 100 degrees, LeeAnn Allegretto, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Missoula, said more above-average temperatures were on the way for western Montana in August, although most places would only hit the mid-90s. However, that heat will also increase the chance of thunderstorms that could bring more lighting-caused fires. 


Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.