Montana, the Big Sky State, is famous not only for its sprawling skies but also its wide-open, mountainous lands. Montana is the fourth largest state, at over 145 thousand square miles, but the forty-fourth most populous, with only just over one million residents. There are more cows in Montana than there are people and agriculture is an important part of the state’s economy. Almost 30% of that acreage is public lands — Montana is home to seven national forests and fifty-three state parks.
Unfortunately, Montana’s formidable natural landscape is facing the degradation of climate collapse. In the past century, Montana has warmed about two degrees Fahrenheit, and drought has followed that heat. As the soil dries up, trees have died and become kindling to wildfires, which are increasingly frequent. Montana faces one of the worst drought threats in the country, second only to Texas, to such an extent that the future of water availability in the state is of pressing concern, and, by extension, the viability of agricultural yields. Of all the western states, Montana has seen the largest percentage increase in the number of fires.
These changes have cascading effects on Montana’s natural ecosystems. For example, dying trees and dry soils increases the risk of forest insect outbreaks. Additionally, a warmer climate means less yearly snowfall and more snowmelt during winter. Both of these conditions reduce snowpack, which can shorten the ski season — a major source of revenue for Montana. A diminished snow pack can even allow for tree lines to move to higher altitudes, threatening alpine tundra ecosystems.
Diana Six, an entomologist at the U. of Montana, returned from a trip to Montana’s Glacial National Park, in July 2021 where the 97/98˚heat had decimated the ice. In despair, she said, “I don’t think people realize that climate change is not just a loss of ice. It’s all the stuff that’s dependent on it. The water is too warm for the fish. At some of the lower elevations, glacier lilies were shriveled, lupins didn’t even open. The flowers should extend for another three weeks but they’re already gone. Any insects or birds that depend upon them, like bees or hummingbirds are in trouble, their food is gone. Bird populations have just baked. There have been total losses of alot of baby birds this year. You see these ospreys and eagles sitting on top of the trees in their nests and those young, they just can’t take the heat.”
Montana has the largest estimated coal reserves in the country (about 30%) and produces 5% of the nation’s coal. It also accounts for about 40% of Montana’s electricity generation. About 7 out of 10 households use natural gas as their primary source of heating, but that gas comes mostly from outside the state. 40% of Montana’s electricity generation comes from hydroelectric power plants and about 9% from wind. Montana’s fast moving rivers and vast plains make the state an ideal place for hydroelectric and wind energy generation.
In 2007, The Montana Climate Change Action Committee agreed upon 54 policy recommendations meant to reduce Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. However, by 2017, carbon dioxide emissions had risen 13% from 1990. In 2017, the Montana Institute on Ecosystems organized the collaborative interagency Montana Climate Assessment with the goal of driving knowledge-based policy. By 2019, Governor Steve Bullock created the Montana Climate Solutions Council, which delivered the first draft of their Montana Climate Solutions Plan in early 2020 and their final 72-page report in August 2020, outlining strategies to help reach Bullock’s stated goal of bringing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero in the electricity sector by 2035. The report also recommends the state reach net-zero emissions across the economy by 2050.
In July 2021, Gov. Greg Gianforte discontinued Montana’s membership in a coalition of two dozen states dedicated to fighting climate change. The U.S. Climate Alliance is a nonpartisan group committed to achieving the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Democratic former Gov. Steve Bullock joined the alliance in 2019.
Asked if the governor has established any specific or measurable targets to reach climate goals, spokesperson Brooke Stroyke responded, “… you can’t set arbitrary, predictive limitations on innovation, and we can’t and shouldn’t put guardrails on innovation and ingenuity to address climate change.”