Thursday, Feb. 11 there will be a public informational meeting on Flathead Lake Management. The meeting will begin at 7 pm at the Hampton Inn in Kalispell. New MTFWP deputy director Art Noonan and Tom McDonald from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will give presentations on the status of the co-management plan and proposals for the next step in lake trout management.
FWP and CS&KT are entering the final year of an agreement to co-manage the lake. Part of the fisheries management plan involved a reduction in the lake trout population in order to conserve populations of native bull trout and cutthroat trout. The agencies decided to try to reduce lake trout through fishing pressure alone using the popular Mack Days fishing contests. Review of the plan has shown that fishing pressure has not been successful in reducing lake trout. There are presently about 400,000 lake trout in Flathead Lake. The estimated population of bull trout in the entire Flathead drainage is thought to be 3,000 to 4,000 fish. Native fish in the system have declined steadily since the 1980s following the introduction of Opossum Shrimp (Mysis relicta). Introduction of the shrimp along with other changes related to increased population around the lake and such things as climate change have played havoc with the Flathead ecosystem. Of the 17 lakes on the west side of Glacier National Park, that supported populations of bull trout, 10 have now been invaded by lake trout from Flathead Lake. “Nine of those have been overwhelmed (by lake trout) to a point where those bull trout populations are on the brink of extinction,” said Clint Muhlfeld, a U.S. Geological Survey fisheries biologist. Lake trout were found in Swan Lake in 1998 and have rapidly multiplied to become a threat to the Swan drainage. Netting programs are in progress in Swan Lake and in Quartz Lake in GNP to suppress lake trout and have shown some positive results.
Non-native lake trout are the hungry wolves of the pelagic world. They multiply faster and grow larger than our native fish. They are direct predators on bull trout and westslope cutthroat. They thrive in the post-mysis ecosystem of Flathead Lake, preying on the shrimp when small and on native fish at larger sizes.
In 1998, bull trout were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, partly due to the threat to Flathead populations. State agencies are required to do all they can to aid the native species. Wade Fredenberg, biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with recovering bull trout in the Flathead ecosystem.
He calls Flathead Lake “the evolutionary heart of bull trout in the region” and “the bull trout’s best hope,” and says “the expectation eight years ago, when they signed that plan, was that we would make progress. Since then, it’s been like Groundhog Day – fundamentally, nothing’s changed for Flathead Lake in eight years.”
“Clearly,” Fredenberg said, “when you look at the whole system, things are measurably worse.”
The hope of the Flathead Lake co-management plan to reduce lake trout through sport fishing alone has been a dismal failure. The tribes are ready to take the next step outlined by the plan. CS&KT wants to discuss a pilot netting program to remove 25% of lake trout under 26 inches over the next three years. Their plan would form a stakeholder group including sportsmen, the tribes and state agencies to oversee the proposed netting. FWP has reluctantly agreed to join in the netting if it goes forward, but seems to be set on doing all they can to stop the plan. Because of the dual role of FWP in protecting native fish as well as trying to pacify local anglers, they will continue to drag their feet.
According to Chris Downs, fisheries biologist for Glacier National Park:
In just 25 years, Downs said, lake trout have pretty much replaced bull trout in the park’s western waterways, “and that’s directly related to the invasion of lake trout from downstream. The status quo in Flathead Lake definitely isn’t helping us any.”
The proposed netting will do nothing to harm the existing huge lake trout population. The netting will be rigorously monitored to assure that the sport fishery is not harmed. It may even enhance growth of larger fish. By removing some of the competing smaller fish, larger trophy-sized lake trout may result. If the netting plan does not achieve the desired result, the lake trout population will rebound in a few years to current levels. The project will provide managers with valuable population data that they don’t currently have to assist future management. The greater threat comes through doing nothing. If bull trout populations continue to decline and wink out, federal managers will take an even greater role in local fishing decisions further reducing our management options. We can act in good faith now, or wait until solutions are forced on us by the feds.