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Cooperative solutions needed now to save our native fish

Montanans have long cherished native bull trout and westslope cutthroat as important sport fish, cultural symbols, indicators of good water quality, and drivers of our recreation economy. Many Montanans grew up learning how to fish by catching these two species. Future Montana kids deserve the same opportunities, but without determined actions now, these opportunities will be lost.  

Predation by non-native lake trout is consistently recognized as the number-one threat to native bull trout and westslope cutthroat in the Flathead. Unfortunately, current proposals to help these important fish are not being well-served when scientific information is incompletely presented or misleading. It is important for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and its Flathead office to present complete scientific data and to accept the results, and to honor the commitments the agency has made in state plans to recover bull trout and cutthroat trout in Montana. 

An inclusive process initiated by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes is currently underway to find more effective ways to reduce the non-native lake trout population in Flathead Lake in order to recover native bull trout and westslope cutthroat populations in the Flathead drainage. During this open process, the public strongly supported native bull trout and westslope cutthroat recovery, commenting in favor of aggressive actions such as netting of non-native lake trout to reduce the population of lake trout in Flathead Lake. Comments supporting recovery of native fish far outnumbered those submitted in support of non-native lake trout.  

Disappointingly, FWP is ignoring this strong public support for native bull trout and westslope cutthroat, and continues to drag its feet in agreeing to practical solutions that will recover native bull trout. The agency’s opposition is based on its position that bull trout populations are “stable” or “secure” in the Flathead. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since 1980 there has been a continuous downward trend in native bull trout populations in the Flathead based on FWP’s own population survey data. For example, in 1982, FWP biologists counted over 400 bull trout redds (bull trout spawning beds) in the North Fork Flathead. In 2010, FWP biologists counted just 54 redds in the same waters. FWP biologists in Kalispell choose to analyze and present only recent data to support their claims of a “secure” and “stable” native fish population in the Flathead. This conveniently chosen timeframe shows a slower rate of decline in Flathead bull trout populations. Regrettably, this population “stabilization” is occurring near the low end of historical population numbers, and native bull trout and westslope cutthroat populations are barely holding on by their fins.    

Bull trout in the Flathead are currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Montana FWP tabs westslope cutthroat a “species of concern.” Because of their threatened status, fishing for bull trout is illegal in Flathead Lake and the Middle and North Forks of the Flathead River. Following drastic declines in bull trout redd counts in the Swan drainage, it appears angling opportunities might also eventually be curtailed there. The status of bull trout in pristine habitats of Glacier National Park is also in decline. Biologists report that bull trout in 9 of 12 lakes in the northwest corner of the Park have effectively become extinct because of non-native lake trout that moved in from Flathead Lake.  

Montana FWP must honor the commitments it made when it helped develop and then signed the Montana Bull Trout Restoration Plan and a similar statewide plan for cutthroat trout. Both plans call for proactive efforts to recover key native trout habitats such as in the Flathead. The agency should heed its own scientific data as well as what it is hearing from the public. It is the right thing to do to restore and sustain populations of our iconic native fish for future generations. 

Contact Montana FWP in Helena at brich@mt.gov, and in Kalispell at jvashro@mt.gov to let them know you support effective actions for recovering native fish. 

Paul Pochak is the president of Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited.

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