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Native Montanans

We make a big deal out of being a native of Montana. We stick it on the bumper of our F-250, we proclaim it as verification in our letters to the local newspaper and our politicians use it as a natural endorsement. These are images of some real Montana Natives. These are bull trout that grew up in Koocanusa reservoir, traveled up the Kootenai River through Canada and up into the Wigwam River, which originates in Lincoln County, to spawn. These fish have existed here longer than even our most revered Native Americans. They evolved in Montana waters. Their genetics are tailored to Montana.

This is what we used to have in the Flathead River watershed. These fish were the apex predator in the river for 10,000 years before we began screwing around. We thought we knew better. We knew that people would rather catch a thirty-pound lake trout in Flathead Lake, or a puny 14-inch kokanee than a  25-pound bull trout from a riffle in the Flathead River. We decided to stick lake trout, lake whitefish, kokanee salmon, opossum shrimp and other nonnatives into our watershed. The result was predictable and we have all but lost these magnificent fish from the Flathead. Some still exist in neighboring river basins and they are still an amazing natural phenomenon. They can travel up to 250 miles to spawn in their natal streams. They require very clean and very cold water and so are a good indicator of the quality of our aquatic habitats. They are almost gone because we thought we could improve on what the natural world provided to us.

We still have a very narrow window of opportunity to save these Montana Natives in the Flathead Basin before their Montana-molded genetics disappear entirely. We now have less than 3,000 of these marvelous fish in the Flathead. We have lost nine of the twelve lakes that supported bull trout on the west side of Glacier National Park to invasion by nonnative lake trout. The Swan drainage is now imperiled by lake trout as well. FWP is charged with protecting and restoring our native fish by law, by treaty and by binding agreements and yet they have been reluctant to do what is right because they fear it may annoy some of their constituency. We need to let FWP know that there is support for saving these impressive native fish. We can’t afford to let this resource cease to exist due to our own neglect.

These striking photos were taken by Joel Sartore, a nationally known wildlife photographer, with the help of our own local endangered fish biologist, Wade Fredenberg of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They were recently released through the USFWS National Digital Library and they give is a small glimpse of what we have lost in the Flathead and also just what we stand to gain by attempting to bring these spectacular Montana Natives back. Most of us have never seen a bull trout in the wild. Let’s hope that we don’t have to just tell our children stories about a time when 25-pound native fish used to swim in the Flathead River.

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