The primary culprit in unleashing a hungry hoard of invasive lake trout on native fish populations of the Flathead has decided to step away from the table and give up the fight to save our remnant populations of native fish in favor of protecting an exclusive and declining lake trout fishery. Since the 1980s, Montana FWP has been working in a collaborative process with other agencies and organizations designed to restore native bull trout and cutthroat trout in northwest Montana. On March 1,
Just over a week after the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes decided to expand an environmental review process for a controversial lake trout netting project on Flathead Lake, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has withdrawn its support for the process.
The current process has been under way since 2009 when CSKT proposed a reasonable plan to remove lake trout from Flathead Lake using netting and angling. FWP agreed to sit down with other stakeholders to craft a reasonable solution. At that time, Jim Satterfield, Regional Manager for FWP Region 1 in Kalispell said;
…the department’s legal counsel has determined that such an effort would have to be preceded by a full environmental impact statement and public review process.
“It’s reasonable to say that when you’re talking about removing 50,000 fish from the largest natural lake in the West that probably rises to the level of an EIS,” Satterfield said. “It’s a substantial impact on the environment and the public.”
Last week the Tribes agreed to move to a full-blown EIS process and FWP backed away once again. Even though the EIS is undeniably incomplete at this point, Bruce Rich, FWP State Fisheries Bureau Chief gave the lame excuse, “Our staff believes that the draft EIS, in its present state, is incomplete in both content and process.” and they walked away from the table. He is, of course, talking about a plan that FWP has been intimately involved in crafting for the past three years.
North Fork Bull Trout
In 1999, in setting up a collaborative panel to create a rational plan to restore bull trout in Montana, former Governor Marc Racicot said;
The bottom line of all this is simple: 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. We owe it to future generations of Montanans to be good stewards of resources that are as much theirs as ours.
In 2000, that Montana-created Bull Trout Restoration Plan set a goal;
The goal of the Montana Bull Trout Restoration 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 [Restoration/Conservation Areas] to allow for recreational utilization.
FWP has never been comfortable with that goal. Since 2002, CSKT has hosted the Mack Days fishing contests on Flathead Lake in an attempt to control the exploding lake trout population. FWP reluctantly agreed to support this weak effort. From 2000 to 2010, the lake was jointly managed under a co-management plan by both FWP and CSKT. In 1999, FWP estimated the population of catchable-sized lake trout (>16 inches) at 353,732. Today that population has swelled to over 500,000 with a total population now estimated to be near 2 million fish. Clearly attempts to reduce the lake trout population by recreational angling have failed. Research indicates that the current management has only succeeded in keeping the lake trout population at about 5% below carrying capacity.
With Flathead Lake overstocked with lake trout, they have been pioneering out into the rest of the watershed, invading 10 of 13 lakes in Glacier National Park connected to Flathead Lake that were once home to healthy populations of bull trout and cutthroats. They have invaded the Swan Lake drainage and are decimating perch populations in the upper Stillwater.
The bull trout population continues to decline. In the last round of redd counts in the North Fork Flathead spawning streams, only single-digit redd counts were found for four of the five index streams. Under these conditions, the agreed-to co-management plan clearly calls for exploring taking further steps to reduce the lake trout population. Those steps will likely involve netting to remove a greater proportion of nonnative lake trout. FWP has never been on-board with this obvious escalation, but decided to join other stakeholders in exploring prudent solutions to restoring declining native fish populations. When the obvious solution became one that did not agree with the FWP’s narrow view, they decided to no longer support the entire collaborative process.
For generations, Montanans had access to a truly unique and productive fishery. Inland salmon to more than 20 pounds and large healthy cutthroat roamed the Flathead River Watershed. We lost access to that fishery due to declining numbers of native fish more than 20 years ago. We have lost more than 50% of those native populations. Now we are in danger of entirely losing those native fish to predation by an excessive and impaired lake trout population exclusive to Flathead Lake and due to mismanagement of the fishery. The agency charged by the citizens of Montana with protecting and recovering our outdoor legacy has unilaterally decided that they don’t even want to talk about making changes to the current untenable management. Like a petulant child, FWP has decided that they don’t want to be associated with any plan that may actually have a chance to succeed in accomplishing a recovery of our native fishery. The real losers, other than our valued native fish, will be the sportsmen of Montana who will now have no voice in crafting the ultimate plan.
Email Bruce Rich, FWP Bureau Director, and let him know that the sportsmen of Montana deserve to have a voice in this important decision. We need to be a part of a reasonable solution.
(cross-posted from Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited)
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