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Science, Politics and Native Trout

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
1420 East Sixth AvenuePlease Help
P.O. Box 200701
Helena, MT 59620-0701

Director Jeff Hagener,

Joel Sartore Bull Trout Photo

Joel Sartore Bull Trout Photo

I have to say that I am very disappointed in the current FWP response to the scientifically-based plan to reduce the bloated population of lake trout in Flathead Lake. MFWP worked with the CSKT for many years to establish and execute a management plan for the Flathead Lake and River System. The overall aim of that co-management plan was to reduce the number of predatory lake trout. Since the 2005 mid-term review, it has been evident that the objective has failed. We now have a lake trout population exceeding 1.5 million fish. We have nearly lost Swan Lake to invasion by Flathead Lake trout. 12 of the 17 lakes in Glacier National Park have been invaded by lake trout and the native fish populations in many of those lakes are functionally extinct. The Flathead lake trout population is expanding throughout the system.

Even though one of the objectives of the Flathead Lake and River Fisheries Co-Management plan was to “Provide a recreational fishery based on nonnative and native fish…” within the 10-year period of the plan, it has now been 21 years since we could last legally fish for our native bull trout in the North and Middle Forks, and Main Flathead River. We have willfully removed an important segment of our native fish assemblage and reduced fishing opportunity for all river anglers.

The number one goal of the co-management plan was to “increase and protect native trout populations.” As it became evident that the co-management plan was not meeting its primary objective through the use of recreational fishing alone, FWP encouraged an increase in lake trout harvest. In 2010, FWP Director Joe Maurier wrote; “I am committed to putting a gillnetting pilot program together. I am committed to enhancing bull trout populations in Flathead Lake, as we have in other lakes in other parts of the region. I recognize gill netting as a legitimately identified management application in the joint management plan.” The Tribes took that as encouragement to work on their pilot netting program. Once that program was completed, FWP complained that it was “incomplete in both content and process” and removed their name from the process.

The Tribes have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to rewrite the proposal using the best possible science and a full-blown EIS process. The completed plan received the support of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, The U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, DNRC, The University of Montana and others, as well as various conservation and angler organizations. FWP sits alone in opposition beside a few commercial fishermen who benefit from the status quo.

MFWP continues to cling to mainly political arguments that have been repeatedly rejected by scientific review. In response to the release of the CSKT proposal, FWP released a poorly forged “Q & A” response using outdated and bromidic arguments. The “stable” argument for native fish has been repeatedly repudiated. Even the 2002 report “Native Trout Security Levels for the Flathead System”, cited in the Q & A, clearly states that “Secure levels do not represent target or management goals. The Co-Management Plan is specific in its goal to increase native trout populations… At this time, regardless of what these levels are, managers will try to increase native trout numbers from current levels.” That has never happened and has not been supported by FWP even though they signed the document.

The bycatch argument is likewise pretty much a bogus contention. Of course, bycatch is an issue that will have to be closely monitored, but it has never been a problem in any of the several ongoing lake trout reduction projects. Lake Pend Oreille and Swan Lake publish their bycatch mortality figures and in both cases, there has been no noticeable affect on the non-target native fish populations. In any case, it is the job of USFWS to closely monitor any activity that may affect ESA-listed native fish populations and they can pull the plug or require changes at any time if harm is occurring.

Current harvest by angling alone is about 70,000 lake trout. Even though the co-management plan has run for 23 years, FWP still claims that the current level “may be helping bull trout”, but it’s “too early to tell”.  Even the most aggressive alternative under the CSKT proposal would only slightly more than double current levels of harvest to 143,000 lake trout out of a population of 1.5 million fish. If anything, some of the reviewing fishery scientists think the plan is not aggressive enough.

I have seen no science undertaken by FWP that would refute findings by CSKT. All we hear is that the Tribal plan won’t work, but no realistic alternatives have been presented that have not been tried, and failed, for the last 20 years. It is time for our outstanding Montana fish and wildlife managers to lead and get on board with actual solutions and not spend so much effort on sour grapes.

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