Bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) don’t ask much. Clean cold (generally below about 55 degrees), high quality water, clean gravels in which to deposit their eggs, deep pools and good cover. All these are things which Montana rivers used to have in abundance. Not so much any more. Historically, bull trout occurred throughout the Columbia River basin as well as a couple of other isolated pockets in the West. Bull trout are disappearing throughout their range due to logging, mining, dams, over-harvest, loss of migratory corridors, changing temperature regimes, development and competition from introduced species.
Upper Columbia basin bull trout were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1998. Since then, every acronym you can think of has come up with some sort of bull trout recovery plan. The USFWS, AFS, USACOE, USGS, USFS and many other state and local agencies have put forth plans to protect and recover bull trout populations. One such plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was recently declared “too ‘illogical’ to withstand legal review” by U.S. District Judge Robert Jones. The plan excluded large amounts of habitat from review due to exclusions made by Bush adminstration Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie MacDonald. The plan relied more on politics than on science. Judge Jones gave the agency six months to come up with a new plan to protect habitat for the endangered fish.
We know how that goes. In 2004, a USFWS economic analysis of bull trout recovery excluded $215 million in benefits associated with a healthy bull trout fishery and focused only on the cost of such a recovery. Gone from the report was 55 pages focusing on benefits of healthy bull trout populations such as increased fishing opportunities, better quality of water supplies, more constant streamflows and benefits to other fish species. The decision to exclude the benefit side of the coin came from Washington, not from fisheries managers.
Recently, in Montana, healthy populations of bull trout in the Flathead and Swan river basins have seen severe depletions due to competition from non-native lake trout. Lake trout are able to out-compete bull trout and they also see them as a yummy food source. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks estimates the current population of lake trout in Flathead Lake at around 393,000 fish with the bull trout population for the entire basin coming in at only 3,000-4,000 fish. We need to act now if we are to save the few fish left in the basin. Up to now, FWS has focused on recreational fishing to control lake trout in Flathead Lake. This approach has shown no noticeable effect on lake trout numbers. It is time to take the next step. An experimental netting program has been recommended by FWS management partner, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes among others to reach sufficient numbers to reduce lake trout abundance.
In 1896, the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake reported on a party who “made their camp on Gordon Creek, a branch of the south fork of the Flathead. Fish, Mr. Rackowitz says, were so plenty in the streams that it was no sport to catch them. The pools were alive with fat trout weighing from a pound to three pounds,“. The south fork is now one of the last remaining bastions of bull trout due to the unintended consequence of Hungry Horse Dam cutting off access to the streams from non-native invaders.
The latest affront to this Montana native came when lake trout were discovered to be living and breeding in Swan Lake. To the credit of local managers, a plan was quickly formulated to deal with the lake trout. The first round of intensive netting of lake trout took place in Swan Lake last year and will continue this fall. Once the lakers have become established, there is really no way to entirely remove them, but it is hoped that the population can be reduced sufficiently to give the resident bull trout and cutthroats a chance to survive in good numbers. Lake trout netting has shown promise as a management strategy in Yellowstone Lake and in Lake Cour d’Alene Lake trout have now also been confirmed upstream in Lindbergh Lake and are most likely in Holland Lake as well compounding the problem. If something is not done and done soon, we risk losing one of our precious biological jewels. As history shows, it is much easier to save a species from extinction than to bring it back from the brink. Historically there were only ten fish species native to the Flathead basin with the bull trout occupying the spot of top predator. There are now over twenty species due to introductions. We can not afford to relinquish that top spot to the lake trout. Currently fishing for bull trout is limitedin Montana to only the Swan River basin and the South Fork of the Flathead above Hungry Horse Reservoir. If these fish poplulations reach the status of endangered, we will see strong federal regulation and reduced fishing opportunities in these areas as well as in other parts of the state. We don’t need the federal government regulating native fish in Montana. Let’s keep politics out of fisheries management and let the professionals do what is right based on solid science.