At the beginning of the twentieth century there were so many bull trout in the Flathead basin that they were sometimes considered a nuisance. There was even a brief commercial fishery for bull trout early in the century. Even as late as the mid-1950s there were reports of pods of as many as 200 bull trout moving up the North Fork to spawn. Fish so large and numerous that they could be seen from the air. But, change was coming. In 1957, a University of Montana professor warned that bull trout were in decline throughout their range and could face possible extinction.
In the 1960s and 1970s the Montana Fish and Game Commission began closing Flathead tributaries to fishing to protect spawning bull trout. By the 1990s, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks began to become alarmed by declining redd counts in the North and Middle Forks. They commissioned a study, which concluded that indeed, bull trout were in trouble in Montana. Amid rumors that the native fish was about to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, in 1992 FWP began to develop a bull trout restoration plan. In 1999, bull trout were named as a “Threatened Species” under the ESA. Then Governor, Marc Racicot declared that:
The bull trout is a native Montana fish and Montanans have not only a legal, but a moral obligation to maintain viable populations of native species.
Since that time, native fish populations in the Flathead have been studied to death. Hundreds of scientific papers have outlined the decline of the species and warned that if we continue on the current path, bull trout will disappear from the majority of the Flathead watershed. Still, we continued to lose native fish. We have destroyed their habitat, dirtied their water, sliced populations apart with dams, and introduced, or allowed to be introduced, invasive species that threaten and prey on our native populations.
By 1999, the population of invasive lake trout in Flathead Lake had grown to more than 200,000 fish. Northern Pike were introduced in to the Flathead sloughs and river where they voraciously prey on bull trout and westslope cutthroat. Beginning in 2001, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and fisheries co-managers, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes began a new management plan for the lake and river fisheries. The plan called for reducing the lake trout population through angling pressure and for increasing the numbers of native fish. That 10-year plan has nearly run it’s course and recent studies have concluded that, not only has there been no reduction in the lake trout population, it continues to grow. The population of catchable lake trout in Flathead Lake is now estimated at over 400,000 fish in Flathead Lake and the North and Middle Forks. The population of native bull trout now numbers less than 3,000 fish. Populations have disappeared from parts of Glacier National Park. Lake trout have invaded the Swan drainage. The time for study has passed. Now is the time that something must be done if we are to continue to have native fish in the Flathead watershed.
In February, Greg Tollefson wrote in the Missoulian:
Bull trout are canaries in the coal mine when it comes to the overall health of the great cold-water fisheries of the West. The dwindling numbers of bull trout in the face of all manner of human-caused habitat disturbance, competition from introduced fish species and the uncertainties of climate change signal that action is needed right now, on the part of responsible resource management agencies, anglers and the general public, to protect those precious cold-water resources.
April 12-14, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will be holding public meetings to discuss ways to salvage some good from the current Co-Management plan. The Tribes have proposed an extension of the current plan that will attempt to remove additional fish from Flathead Lake using new strategies such as additional angling, gillnetting, trap netting, bounties and other techniques to reduce lake trout and halt the decline of native fish. They will present proposed options at the upcoming meetings and take public comment on ways to improve the plan and to save the Flathead’s native fish populations.
Learn more about the project and why there is a need: What Anglers Should Know About Flathead Lake, Lake Trout and Native Trout
Below is the schedule for the meetings next week. Please plan to attend a meeting in your area to learn more about the plan, about threats to native fish, and to show your support for Montana’s native species. We have planned and studied as long as we dare, if we are to continue to have native fish in our waters, the time for action is now.
April 12, 2010 in Polson at the Kwa Taq Nuk Resort – 7:00 to 9:00 pm
April 13, 2010 in Kalispell at the Red Lion Inn – 7:00 to 9:30 pm
April 14, 2010 in Missoula at the Wingate Inn – 7:30 to 9:30 pm