There aren’t many people, I’m sure, making regular use of the Bitterroot River whether recreating, outfitting or irrigating, who haven’t had the pleasure of dealing with FWP fisheries biologist Chris Clancy some way or the other over the last thirty years. But his career with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has finally come to an end. Although he is retiring, he won’t be hanging up the waders. But he may have to go back to angling like he did as a kid, instead of shocking fish in droves like he did for most of his career.
Clancy was born in Havre, Montana. He attended two years of college at Northern Montana State University and another two years at MSU in Bozeman. He stayed on at MSU and got his master’s degree there as well and got his first job in Lewistown working for the Bureau of Land Management. Before a year was up, however, he took a job with FWP working on small streams in the Glendive area in the spring of 1978. After that he spent two years on the Tongue River before going to work in Livingston on the upper Yellowstone River. From there he moved to the Bitterroot Valley in 1989 where he has worked since.
Clancy wasn’t the only one in his family to become an FWP fisheries biologist. His brother Patrick Clancey also graduated from MSU and became a career fisheries biologist for FWP. They even had occasion to work together at times. His brother has also retired, his last job being in Ennis.
Clancy’s son Niall also graduated from MSU Bozeman with a degree in aquatic ecology and is currently doing graduate work at Utah State. It seemed that perhaps fisheries work was a family tradition, but it turns out not.
“My dad was not an outdoorsman or a sportsman,” said Clancy. Although his mother did like to take walks in nature, neither of them was interested in fishing or hunting.
So how did he become interested in things like that?
According to Clancy, it was when he was ten or eleven years old and out kicking around the rocks along Beaver Creek. He said when he first discovered all the aquatic insects living amongst the stones, he was absolutely fascinated by them. But it wasn’t until a few years later, after his grandfather died, that he actually got into fishing.
Clancy said his grandfather lived in Havre and that is where he died. His father went to Havre to clean out his grandfather’s house and he found some tackle boxes and a few fishing rods and asked him if he wanted them.
“I didn’t even know how to use them, but he gave them to me,” said Clancy. “Then a friend of Dad’s from work showed me how to use them. I went out and caught a couple of fish, and the rest is history.”
Indeed. With a career spanning over forty years, Clancy has not only seen a lot of history, he has helped make it. He was the man in the field when catch and release programs for Cutthroat trout were implemented, first on the Yellowstone and then on the Bitterroot. He said it gave him great satisfaction when they saw the Cutthroat trout populations rebound as quickly as they did.
Clancy also played a key role in the historic water use agreement at Painted Rocks Reservoir.
“I don’t think there is anything else like it in the state,” said Clancy, of the water use agreement between the irrigators and FWP which allows for the release of instream flows to preserve the fishery during late summer low flows.
“On the surface, you can say it’s competing interests, but really you are sharing,” he said, “and it’s really worked well over the years.”
Clancy also served as the point man in the Bitterroot for FWP during the historic lawsuit over public access to the Right Fork of the St. Mary’s Fork of the Bitterroot River, aka Mitchell Slough. He said that was pretty consuming for a number of years, but he was proud of the outcome.
If you ask him about the “highlights” of his career, however, the first thing out of his mouth is not about these historic events. It’s about the people he has met and the friendships that formed along the way and the many small projects that he participated in on a day to day basis.
Clancy said that his work with the Bitterroot Conservation District on permitting activity in streams was very rewarding and working on certain small restoration projects. He said he gets a lot of satisfaction as he drives around the valley seeing the success of these small projects.
There is a lot about his job that hasn’t changed that much over the years, he said. As for the electro-fishing and data collection, he said, it’s pretty much the same.
“The equipment has improved some, but the practice is pretty much the same,” he said. Other aspects of the job have changed significantly, though. He said when he started they would mail their data sheets off to be analyzed by someone else who would then mail back a report. After reviewing the report, it would be sent to headquarters where it was inputted into some large computer.
“Now the data goes directly into our software and you hit a button to send it off,” said Clancy.
Another thing that’s changed is the amount of “computer modelling” that is being used.
“The technology is great,” said Clancy, “but it can pull you away from other aspects of your work. It’s tempting to get deep into modelling but modelling of nature is dangerous territory because it is so complex. A lot of models are being employed these days, simulations of nature, and a lot of times it works well, but other times it doesn’t.”
Another big change in things has been the development of genetics. He said when he started work, biologists would try to identify a potential purebred Cutthroat from a cross breed just by looking at it. He said it’s not very easy. Eventually some guiding visual keys were developed but that was not so clear either. Now tissue samples can be taken without killing the fish and a DNA analysis is performed at the lab which adds much more certainty to the process.
Asked what the future may hold for the fisheries in the Bitterroot, Clancy said he sees at least two big threats to our fisheries on the horizon. First on the list is residential and commercial development along the streams. Second on the list would be climate change. Temperature studies over a few decades show that all the waterways in the Bitterroot are growing progressively warmer.
“The first we can do something about locally,” he said, “but the second needs to be globally addressed.”