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Wolf Trout

The headline today is “Tribes propose netting lake trout“. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have released a draft of a pilot proposal to reduce lake trout in Flathead Lake numbers which would include the use of netting. They are interested in forming a work group composed of tribal, state and federal government agencies along with interested private and conservation groups to explore their proposal.

The most common response I have heard goes something like this; “We have allowed wolves to proliferate in Montana and eat all of our deer and elk and now the damn government wants to destroy our best fishery!“. So, through some odd twist of logic,  because wolves eat deer, that becomes justification for saving lake trout. Wolves are native to Montana. They were never introduced, reintroduced or planted in Northwest Montana. They spread naturally from an original pack in the North Fork of the Flathead. Lake trout are a non-native, top-tier predator that were introduced both legally and illegally in Montana. Lake trout have had devastating consequences for the upper Flathead. They have spread into the Swan drainage, they are taking over almost all of the lakes and streams in the west side of Glacier Park. Native fish species continue to decline. We now have “a ratio of two lake trout for every bull trout in Logging Lake, and a ratio of six-to-one in Bowman Lake” since 1977.

It is likely that we will loose some distinct populations of native bull trout in many of our tributaries in the near future. We are netting lake trout in Swan Lake and in Quartz Lake to try to salvage some of the genetic diversity of bull trout populations. Bull trout were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1998. They are considered to be a Species of Concern by MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks. FWP is required by law to do anything they can to preserve bull trout.

Flathead Lake is co-managed by the CS&KT and MTFWP under a ten-year agreement signed in 2000. Managers estimate that there is now a population of about 400,000 lake trout in Flathead Lake. The estimate for bull trout is 3,000 to 4,000 for the entire basin. The bull trout population has undergone a steady decline for over 30 years. Lake managers have, thus far, chosen to use recreational angling as the sole means to control lake trout. By all measures, this approach has not worked.

The project proposed by the tribes would attempt to remove approximately 25% of the lake trout population under 26 inches from Flathead Lake by 2012 while at the same time sustaining angling pressure at the current 40,000 angler-days per year. The ambitious three-year plan would start by attempting to remove 60,000 lake trout next year by both angling and netting. 60,000 fish by 2008 was the goal established by the mid-term review of the co-management plan. $300,000 has been spent so far and this goal has not been reached by angling alone. Angling pressure actually fell off a bit last year. It’s time to take the next step.

Planning sessions will be held in January and February. Annual meetings will be held to review progress. If you are in favor of reducing the numbers of top predators, like wolves, in Montana, you should love this plan to remove aquatic wolves from our lake. Reducing the number of lake trout in Flathead Lake from 400,000 to 300,000 will do nothing to damage angling opportunities and may go a long way toward saving native populations of bull trout and cutthroat trout in the Flathead. We can no longer allow this noxious invader to continue to pollute the Flathead.

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4 Responses

  1. Reducing lake trout numbers in Flathead Lake from 400,000 to 300,000 will do nothing to resolve the problem claimed either…and in the netting process, how many “native trout” and other desireable species do you think will be lost? It’s impossible to selectively net just one species without causing a negative impact on others.

    • Thanks for the comment. Lowering the number of predatory lake trout by 100,000 is a start. It will reduce competition and predation on native fish and allow a population rebound. If the entire reduction of 100,000 were replaced by native bull and cutthroat trout, it would provide a much greater buffer against possible extinction. At a population level of 3,000 to 4,000 fish, which we have currently, the native fish are at grave risk from any threat such as disease, pollution, or drought. A lake trout population of 200,000 to 300,000 will still provide ample fishing opportunities and will allow native fish to reclaim some of their range. Current populations of native bull trout are not sustainable for the long run.

      It is possible to net invaders without having any significant impact on native populations as has been shown in Swan Lake, Yellowstone Lake and other netting operations. During fall and winter, when netting will take place, populations of lake trout and bull trout are segregated in the lake. It is possible to target only lake trout with very little bycatch of native fish. There is no plan to totally remove lake trout, but only to give the native species some breathing room and hopefully increase their chances of long-term survival.

      The CS&KT plan is experimental at this stage. There is no guarantee that it will have the desired result either in reducing lake trout numbers or increasing native populations. The plan will be constantly monitored and if fishing pressure drops off or if there is no response from the native species, the netting will not go forward. It is not only our responsibility as sportsmen to protect our native species, it is required by law. The current plan has had ten years and has shown no results. It is time to move to the next step. It’s time for sportsmen to “take charge of predator problems“. If it holds true for wolves, it should doubly apply to lake trout.

  2. Can they feed the lake trout to the wolves?

    • I like it Charley! That’s what they need, a little innovative thinking. We can’t eat ’em, too much mercury. Maybe it would solve two problems at once.

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