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A new study published in Resources examines drought plans in the Upper Missouri Headwaters of southwestern Montana to determine whether these plans incorporate non-human impacts of drought.

Upper Missouri Headwaters Basin, Montana – A new study published in Resources examines drought plans in the Upper Missouri Headwaters of southwestern Montana to determine whether these plans incorporate non-human impacts of drought.

Water laws and drought plans are used to prioritize and allocate water resources. Traditionally, these laws and plans have been human-centric, and many have failed to account for non-human water needs, such as those of wildlife and ecosystems.

The ecological impacts of drought are yet to be adequately considered in many drought planning efforts, and there are growing concerns about the need to consider the impacts of drought on ecosystems. In the future, droughts could become more frequent and severe in some parts of the country. Therefore, planning ahead for future droughts and considering multiple sectors in the planning process is essential.

The Study

A group of researchers, supported by the U.S. Geological Survey National Climate Change & Wildlife Science Center (NCCWSC) and the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP), examined five watershed-scale drought plans in the Upper Missouri Headwaters (UMH) of southwestern Montana. Their goal was to understand if the plans considered the ecological impacts of drought and, if so, what ecological risks were being incorporated into drought planning.

The researchers chose to focus on the UMH region for two reasons. First, given the ecological values within the basin, including blue-ribbon trout streams and proximity to National Parks and wilderness areas, the researchers expected that some drought plans would already address ecological impacts. Second, this region has been the focus of a pilot project for the National Drought Resilience Partnership (NDRP), which is working with the State of Montana to help address the issue of drought in the arid West.

The multidisciplinary team of climatologists, ecologists, and social scientists examined the drought plans and compared each plan’s planning background, overall plan approach, planning process, all drought impacts, climate change impacts, descriptions of vulnerability factors, indicators and monitoring, and plan actions. The researchers then examined the degree to which each plan:

1) identifies ecological impacts of drought- such as impacts to fish, wildlife, water quality, and forests

2) identifies indicators of drought- such as streamflow, water temperature, and precipitation

3) states whether those indicators trigger drought mitigation or response actions


Following this review process, the researchers found that while these plans do account for some of the ecological impacts of drought, the scope of ecological impacts mentioned is generally limited to fish populations and fish habitat. As the local watershed coordinator from UMH stated, “When people say ‘health of the river’, what they really mean is the health of the fisheries in the river. [It’s a] fairly narrow ecological view” (pg. 8).

The researchers also found that the indicators mentioned in the drought plans (i.e., the factors that would trigger drought response action) are mostly limited to streamflow and water temperature. They found that the drought plans generally lacked sufficient and specific drought indicators, which, in turn, could result in missed opportunities to link to other resource planning processes. Specifically, the authors suggest that relying on streamflow levels as the primary indicator of drought could encourage communities to focus on reactive drought strategies, rather than developing longer-term and more comprehensive drought mitigation strategies.

Moving Forward

The authors conclude that a more comprehensive analysis of what influences water availability and drought risks to both ecosystems and people will lead to more effective plans and more sustainable communities. Given limited resources and the potential for mutual benefits and synergies, greater integration between various planning processes could result in a more holistic consideration of water needs and uses across the landscape.

Want to learn more about the ecological impacts of drought? Check out how NCCWSC and the Climate Science Center network are addressing this important issue here.

This research was supported in part by the U.S. Geological Survey National Climate Change & Wildlife Science Center (NCCWSC)  and in part by the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP)—a partnership of The Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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