New Poll Confirms Montana’s Love Affair With Rivers


winter fishing in Montana | © Scott Bosse

Winter fishing in Montana | © Scott Bosse

Not many people think of fly-fishing as a winter sport.

But if you drive up the Gallatin Canyon from Bozeman to Big Sky on a typical late winter day, you might be surprised at what you’ll find. At certain bends in the river where fish are known to hold, you’ll see bundled-up anglers waving their fly rods through the snowflakes in hopes of landing a wild rainbow trout.

Down where the glorified goat path known as Highway 191 crosses the river by the Lava Lake trailhead, you’ll often see a gaggle of kayakers splashing through the 32-degree rapids. And they will have broad smiles on their purple faces.

So it should come as little surprise that a new poll commissioned by Montanans for Healthy Rivers, a diverse coalition led by American Rivers and our partners, found that a whopping 85 percent of Montanans think that clean and healthy rivers are “very important” or “extremely important” to Montana’s economy and way of life.

Here are some other highlights from the poll:

  • Two-thirds of Montanans have recreated on a river over the past year, and a third of us have recreated on a river ten or more times (don’t tell my boss!)
  • Almost nine in ten Montana voters want to maintain or increase protections for Montana’s rivers
  • Three-quarters of Montanans support the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
  • Three-quarters of Montanans prefer to deal with increasing droughts and floods by preserving riverside wetlands and floodplains as opposed to taming rivers by building new dams and levees
  • • Two-thirds of Montana voters would look more favorably upon a candidate for political office who supports more river protections

The poll, which was conducted by the bipartisan team of FM3 Research and Public Opinion Strategies, was based on interviews with 400 randomly selected Montanans from across the state.

What I found most heartening about the poll is the strong support that it found for protecting our rivers across every demographic. Montanans love their rivers regardless of age, gender, income, ideology, political affiliation, or what region of the state they live in.

Given the fact that American voters are so sharply divided along partisan lines, I was blown away by this finding from the poll – 96 percent of self-identified “strong Democrats” and 84 percent of “strong Republicans” agreed that clean and healthy rivers either are “very important” or “extremely important” to our economy and way of life.

Maybe it’s time for Congress to meet on a riverbank – in Montana.

Our main goal in commissioning this poll was to gauge whether there is broad public support for adding new river protections in Montana, especially new Wild and Scenic River designations. We knew from our past four years of on-the-ground outreach that there are pockets of strong support for new Wild and Scenic designations in places like East Rosebud Creek, but we wanted to see if that local support extended to a statewide audience.

Despite the fact that the original idea for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was born in Montana when John Craighead, the famous wildlife biologist, was fighting the proposed Spruce Park Dam on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River in the 1950s, Montana hasn’t seen a Wild and Scenic River designated in almost forty years.

Now that we’ve confirmed just how much Montanans love their rivers and want to see them protected, we’re more optimistic than ever that we’ll be successful in bringing the Act home in the not-so-distant future.

To read more about our Montana river poll, check out these front-page news stories that recently appeared in the Missoulian and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.