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 than there are people in Montana, 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 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, recently returned from a trip to Montana’s Glacial National Park, 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 a lot 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 and produced 5% of the nation’s coal in 2018. Coal accounts for about 47% of Montana’s electricity generation. About 7 out of 10 households use natural gas as their primary source of heating, but most of that gas comes from outside the state. 40% of Montana’s electricity generation comes from hydroelectric power plants, the largest share after coal, and about 8% comes from wind energy. 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 a first draft of their Montana Climate Solutions Plan in early 2020 and their final 72-page report in September 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.
Montana is one of twenty five states committed to the U.S. Climate Alliance, which is working to implement policies that advance the goals of the Paris Agreement.
CREDIT: NEW YORK TIMES