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Climate Change Adaptation Planning in Missoula County

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Missoula County is host to a diversity of people, local industries, intact ecosystems, and dramatic scenery. Its rivers and forests provide abundant opportunity for outdoor activities, while the university and downtown Missoula provide culture and entertainment. When people are asked why they live in Missoula County, they often refer to the high quality of life.

Missoula County’s quality of life is at risk, however, from a variety of pressures and challenges that range from population growth to energy and water demands. Unfortunately, one primary threat has the capacity to overwhelm and affect all others – the threat of climate change. Climate change is expected to have substantial impacts to the natural systems of Missoula County, including rivers, streams, forests and wildlife. These impacts will in turn affect infrastructure, emergency response capacity, human health, tourism, agriculture, forestry and many other facets of society.

We assessed how a changing climate might affect Missoula County, using the latest science and local expertise in a community-based process called ClimateWise. The ClimateWise process included an analysis of local climate change model projections and a community workshop for a variety of stakeholders.  The entire process is guided by a local Steering Committee.

During the ClimateWise process, groups of experts and leaders from across the different sectors of the community developed a suite of strategies for “climate change adaptation” – the process of preparing for climate change to reduce overall impacts to natural and human communities. We view these strategies as a critical first step for an ongoing planning process, as the climate, scientific understanding, and other drivers such as population growth change over time.  By integrating adaptation strategies across the different sectors of society, county leaders will reduce conflict among diverse interests for limited resources, such as water, while increasing communication and lowering overall costs.

Based on climate change model projections from three global climate models, as well as peer-reviewed scientific publications, here is a list of likely changes in Missoula County over the coming century:

  • 5-10º F increase in temperature
  • Lower late summer stream flow
  • Earlier spring runoff
  • Declines in snowpack
  • Changes to precipitation patterns
  • Changes in tree species for forestry
  • Changes to fish, wildlife and plant populations
  • More wildfire
  • Increased spread of invasive species
  • More pests and disease in natural systems and human populations

Workshop participants considered climate change and on-the-ground vulnerabilities to develop recommendations for increasing resilience in the face of changing conditions. Working in mixed groups, they addressed five different interdisciplinary topics. Their guidance is summarized here.


Participants were concerned about expected changes in water supply from loss of snowpack and declines in stream flow. Declines would impact agriculture, riparian and wetland areas, tourism, recreation, business and residential water users.

They recommended increasing natural water storage capacity in the form of beaver dams, wetlands, riparian areas and floodplains. They also recommended changing water ownership structures and increasing education and outreach. The group suggested supporting the agricultural industry through incentives and education. They cited a need to leverage efforts and work collaboratively across local jurisdictions and groups. Finally, they suggested showcasing successful efforts throughout the county and elsewhere as positive examples of what can be accomplished.


The wildfire group identified many potential impacts from the increasing frequency and severity of wildfire. These include the risk to human safety, declines in air quality, rising costs of fire suppression, increased insurance rates, and the loss of important natural resources and carbon storage.

In response, they suggested increasing education on wildfire and providing demonstration projects for people to learn from. It was recommended that some fires be allowed to burn, thereby increasing the resilience of forest ecosystems. Mechanical fuels reduction was suggested for specific areas and forest types. Thinning could be combined with biomass production for fuel or new markets for blue stain pine and other forest products. Reducing wildfire risk by limiting development in fire-prone areas was a primary recommendation of the group. For existing homes that border forest, they suggested supporting the creation of defensible space and fire resistant structures.


Participants discussed the potential for larger floods from rain-on-snow events and quicker spring snowmelt. These changes could lead to increased needs for government emergency services, damage to infrastructure, losses of recreation and tourism opportunities, and toxins in floodwaters.

Workshop participants made numerous recommendations for reducing flood risk, such as increasing communication and trust among private landowners and agencies. State or County assistance for landowners, with a variety of goals related to land management and renewable energy, was suggested.

Protecting and enhancing ecosystems that store and filter water was identified as an important strategy as well. The group recommended that incentives be provided for a system of natural flood control measures (wetlands, floodplains, etc.)

Identifying and maintaining vulnerable infrastructure were recommended as ways to reduce overall risk. Increased preparedness efforts would result in greater effectiveness during emergencies.


Natural systems, like human systems, will be disrupted during flooding, fire, pest outbreaks, and drought. Species are expected to need to shift to new areas with climate change. Declines of many species are expected. These declines could lead to a loss of ecosystems services, such as pollination, water filtration, or timber for harvest. As more people move to the area, population growth will exacerbate the impacts of climate change to native species and habitats of Missoula County.

Many recommendations were made for ways to increase the resilience of native species and habitats. One recommendation, maintaining and enhancing riparian areas and wetlands, is complementary to previous recommended strategies for maintaining water supplies or reducing flood risk. Reintroducing beavers was also suggested.

Reducing ongoing stressors that cause degradation and fragmentation was recommended to offset the additional stressors brought on by climate change. The group suggested changing forest management to focus on controlling invasive species, maintaining habitat connectivity, and maintaining diversity.

Finally, education and outreach were suggested as tools to increase awareness of our dependence on functioning ecosystems.


Climate change impacts to Missoula County are expected to be far less severe than climate change impacts to many other parts of the nation. Workshop participants expected increased immigration to the area due to sea level rise, hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding that affect other regions.

Workshop participants suggested revising the growth strategy for the county to account for climate change and potential resource scarcity. Such planning would need to weight the needs of a variety of interests, including low-income populations, agriculture, tourism, recreation, development, and transportation.

Maintaining wildlife connectivity, intact floodplains, agricultural lands, and functional watersheds may be most successfully achieved through regulation or zoning.

Finally, the workshop participants suggested that support for diversified businesses, manufacturing, and job growth is important. Efforts to encourage business should focus on industries that use sustainable practices. New and sustainable uses of timber resources, such as biochar or blue-stain pine industries, are worth investigating and supporting. Agriculture, land conservation, and the local food movement are other economic activities that should be supported at the local level.

As climate change progresses, it is important that communities are prepared in ways that protect people and the natural resources they depend on. The ClimateWise process allowed local experts and leaders to use the latest science to assess what changes are likely across Missoula County. Recommended strategies and actions that were developed during the process can be incorporated into ongoing decision making and planning processes at many different levels. This effort represents a first step at creating more resilient and sustainable Missoula County in the face of accelerating change.

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