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Just do what’s right for Montana natives

There are still 56 species of native fishes in Montana. Let’s keep it that way. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, “Montana’s native fish are Nature’s Keepers and it’s up to all of us to keep it that way.” The FWP management plan for native fish seeks to “Maintain or enhance Montana’s native fish populations and habitats.” During the development of the Montana Bull Trout Restoration Plan, former Governor, Marc Racicot reminded us that,

“How we manage wildlife not only says a lot about us as a society and culture, but also ensures that future generations of Montanans have the same opportunities we’ve had to enjoy and appreciate our fish and wildlife.”

In 2000, that Bull Trout Restoration Plan was finally published and it read in part:

The purpose of this restoration plan is to provide the framework for a strategy to reverse or halt the decline of bull trout populations in western Montana, and restore populations in areas where they have declined.

The restoration goals listed for bull trout in Montana included this specific goal:

Increase bull trout spawners to attain the average redd count level of the 1980’s, and maintain this level for 15 years (3 generations) in the North Fork and Middle Fork monitoring areas. The average 1980’s redd counts in index streams were 240 in the North Fork (Whale, Trail, Coal and Big creeks) and 151 in the Middle Fork (Morrison, Granite, Lodgepole, and Ole creeks)

So far we haven’t done much of a job at attaining our stated goals. Redd counts for the four listed North Fork tributaries in 2009 reached only 85 redds. Less than half of the stated goal. We haven’t done much better in the Middle Fork. In 2009, Middle Fork tributary redd counts were only 102. Redd counts continue to show a declining trend throughout the drainage over the last ten years. According to FWP, “The stated goal of the plan is to ensure the long-term persistence of complex (all life histories represented), interacting groups of bull trout distributed across the species’ range and manage for sufficient abundance within restored RCAs to allow for recreational utilization“. The FWP management plan for Westslope Cutthroat Trout maintains that, “Recovering depressed populations will involve habitat restoration and removing non-native species.” Stated goals for the co-management of the Flathead Lake and Fisheries over the life of the current 10-year plan are:

  • Increase and protect native trout populations (bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout).
  • Balance tradeoffs between native species conservation and nonnative species reduction to maintain a viable recreational/subsistence fishery.
  • Protect the high quality water and habitat characteristics of Flathead Lake and its watershed.

It is clear that we have set both moral and legal goals to be obtained in the management of our native species in Montana. We haven’t even come close. Over the life of the current iteration of the Co-Management plan for Flathead Lake, the population of predatory lake trout has increased from 200,000 to 400,000 fish in the lake. Native bull trout numbers have fallen to under 3,000 fish. The Swan drainage has been invaded by lake trout and will likely never recover. Of the 17 lakes on the west side of Glacier National Park that held populations of native bull trout, 10 have been invaded by lake trout. It is likely that nine of those 10 will loose their native fish due to competition from, and predation by, lake trout.

All of the science points to predation by lake trout as the number one cause of declines in native fish in the Flathead. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks are trying to come up with a sensible extension of the current plan that will remove enough voracious lake trout from the system to allow recovery of our native fish. Claims that removing a few thousand lake trout will destroy the lake fishery or harm the local economy are nonsense. The goal is to get back some of the balance that the system once had. Angling for lake trout has been in integral part of the fishery for more than sixty years. We can neither destroy that fishery by gillnetting nor harm local fishing interests. What we are talking about is restoring some semblance of balance to the system. It is well within our technical abilities to do so. Other netting programs have shown that we have the ability to do it. Money is not a problem. I just read an article where the State spent $2.4 million to clean up pollution in a small state park near Helena. If we can spend this on a polluted park, we can surely spend half that amount to remove some vertebrate pollution from one of our most precious Montana lakes. CSKT and MTFWP want to hear your comments on how to best accomplish the goals we have set out. They want to know specifically a) How many fish should we attempt to remove. b) How many years should the plan run to insure our goals and c) What methods would be most effective in removing the invaders. Please send your comments before May 17 to the addresses below and help us help Montana natives.

Barry Hansen, project chief
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes
Box 278
Pablo, MT 59855
barryh@cskt.org
Email comments can also be sent to: Rose Leach at rosel@cskt.org
and
Bruce Rich, fishery bureau chief
Montana FWP
1420 East 6th Avenue
Helena, MT 59620
brich@mt.gov
Email comments can also be sent to: John Fraley at jfraley@state.mt.us

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6 Responses

  1. The conversation this topic has created amongst people I know – crazy. Strong opinions where typically it’s a live and let live sort of place?

    It seems anti-netting rules – but one person said that if people truly did want to remove the lake trout, they’d poison the lake.

    I agree – preserving native populations is both a moral and a legal obligation. I don’t know the answer – what I do know is failure to act is not an option.

    • I’m afraid “live and let live” is something that lake trout don’t understand. They would eat every last fish in Flathead Lake if they could and then eat each other. It’s also not an option for fisheries managers. Bull Trout are listed as Threatened under the ESA. Westslope Cutthroat are listed as a “Species of Concern” in Montana. They are required by law to do all they can to protect and restore native fish. All the science agrees that the main reason native fish continue to decline in the Flathead watershed is predation by the runaway population of lake trout. Scientists have been saying for at least twenty years that if nothing is done, bull trout and cutthroat will disappear from the Flathead. We are rapidly approaching that point. FWP has declared many times their dedication to restoring native fish in the Flathead, but when it comes down to angering some of their constituents they back off.

      The Flathead is one of the very few intact bull trout ecosystems in the country. Bull trout use the streams and the rivers and creeks and provide a prey base for many species. Lake trout just sit on the bottom of the lake and eat other fish.

      We can’t poison the lake, because we legally have to protect the native fish. Besides, lake trout have infested many lakes in the upper watershed and would just come right back. Restoring the natives to the Flathead drainage is something we can do. Gillnetting is a well proven way to target just the fish you want to catch by size and by species. The charter boat guys are crazy if they think we can harm this gigantic population with a limited netting program. Whether or not it will help the native fish depends on how well the program is designed. FWP signed on to a plan that requires them to “Increase and protect native trout populations“. It’s finally time for them to live up to their word and work with the Tribes in a cooperative way to help these fish before it’s too late.

      • Poisoning, as I’ve asked now, wouldn’t work because the lake is too huge….on the other hand, gill netting is really a band-aid, isn’t it? I guess I wonder just how effective it will be? Or would they do something that is part of an ongoing strategy? It’d have to be more of a management plan, as I see it, no?

        I wonder about focusing the netting at the deeper depths. Don’t those lake trout like to hang in the lower depths?

        What about shocking? Isn’t that a method Yellowstone has used on Lake?

      • At this point, everything is on the table, except poisoning. Gillnetting is the preferred method because it can be very targeted. Nets can be targeted by depth and by fish size. You can also target congregations of lake trout by using Judas fish. The way it works is, every time you catch more lake trout, you tag a few and release them. The radio tags tell you where the lake trout are. It’s also done during the lake trout spawn in the fall when bull trout leave the lake and move to the rivers to spawn. The fish are not congregated in the same part of the lake. It has worked like a charm in Swan Lake. Last year, they took 54% of the lake trout from Swan Lake (over 5,000 fish) with a bycatch mortality of only slightly more than 100 bull trout (2%). That method has also been used in Yellowstone Lake. They have been successful there in halting the runaway growth of the lake trout, but they are not taking out enough to reduce the population. That is why they are planning on expanding the netting at Yellowstone. There are a lot of experiments going on regarding innovative means to control lake trout, such as shocking the eggs, but none of those have been proven yet on the scale needed and we don’t have time to waste on more methods that don’t work. Netting works.

        Yes, in Flathead it will probably be an ongoing process. The pilot project is meant to gather enough data for the managers to understand how well it works and how much response they can get from the native fish. The netting in Lake Pend Oreille is showing some very positive results and they figure that they may have to have limited netting about every five years to keep the lake trout populations depressed. Once lake trout are well established, there is no way that they can ever get rid of them. There will always be a large population of lake trout in Flathead Lake. There has been a very good lake trout fishery since at least the 1950s when there were less than 40,000 fish so, we aren’t going to harm the angling. It may even help the lake trout anglers by creating more large trophy fish. Right now, the population is so large that the fish are beginning to be stunted.

        This plan does nothing more than encourage CSKT and FWP to live up to agreements they signed on to at the beginning of this process. The Montana Bull Trout Recovery Plan, signed by FWP in 2000 has goals of restoring native fish populations including a goal to, “Increase bull trout spawners to attain the average redd count level of the 1980’s, and maintain this level for 15 years (3 generations) in the North Fork and Middle Fork monitoring areas. The average 1980’s redd counts in index streams were 240 in the North Fork (Whale, Trail, Coal and Big creeks) and 151 in the Middle Fork (Morrison, Granite, Lodgepole, and Ole creeks)“. This is what they said they would do at the beginning of the Co-Management Plan. The Co-Management plan also set a goal to “Increase and protect native trout populations (bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout).” They have agreed that what they have done so far has not worked. If we don’t do something soon, we will loose those fish. All we want of them is to do what they said they would do and what they are required by law and agreement to do.

      • Thank you for all of that information. Netting sounds worthwhile and with significant enough impact, since, as you mention, we’d never get rid of them all.

        I appreciate the time you took with that. Thanks!

      • Great, anything I can do to help. Now, get all your friends and neighbors to comment on the plan to Barry Hansen, CSKT barryh@cskt.org AND to Bruce Rich, FWP brich@mt.gov.

        Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited has a good overview of the problem, lots of good information and ways to comment and make a difference.
        Read What Anglers Should Know About Flathead Lake, Lake Trout and Native Trout.

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