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Bucket biology causing problems in local water bodies

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POLSON — State and tribal wildlife officials have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and coordinated extensive education efforts to try to limit the spread of aquatic invasive species, but new human-introduced species are still making their way into local water bodies.

Authorities say the new species could wreak havoc on native species and others that people have grown acclimated to fishing for.

“The concern on Lake Mary Ronan is that it is a tremendous kokanee salmon and perch fishery,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Fisheries Manager Mike Delray told Flathead Reservation Fish and Wildlife Board last week. “The kokanee salmon provide the eggs for us for all of our kokanee stocking in Montana.”

Delray worries about the potential of northern pike encroaching upon the kokanee in Lake Mary Ronan. An angler caught the first confirmed pike in the lake on June 26. Northern pike are known to be predacious and aggressive. In addition to threatening the kokanee fishery, Delray said he is also worried that bass stocked in the lake could be put in jeopardy by pike. 

“Usually bass are the first species to go once pike show up,” Delray said. “There’s so much overlap that they disappear quickly.” 

It is unclear whether or not the two pike in the lake were able to reproduce. Of the two caught in June, one was handed over to state wildlife authorities, and another went back into the water after becoming unhooked at the boat.

In the three weeks since the discovery of the northern pike, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has scoured the shallows around the lake for juvenile pike. The agency has also deployed gillnets and trap nets in an effort to assess the situation. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks intends to repeat the process in a month’s time. 

No pike have been found in the search, but the agency did find another species that hasn’t been found in Lake Mary Ronan before – black crappie. 

The fish found last week was the second reported on the lake. The first black crappie report came in the fall of 2013. 

While black crappie are not as aggressive as northern pike, they could still detrimentally impact perch in the fishery, Delray said. 

It is difficult to say if the northern pike or the black crappie will take hold in Lake Mary Ronan, Delray said. Sometimes wildlife managers find a few fish that are never seen again after the initial sighting. Other times, populations explode after a few years, Delray said.

“You can always keep your fingers crossed but Lake Mary Ronan is an ideal pike lake,” Delray said. 

Even with extensive surveying efforts to try and get an idea of whether or not there are more northern pike in Lake Mary Ronan, it is a hit or miss approach in a fairly large body of water. Delray is not surprised the search for more pike has been unsuccessful. 

“It’s like a needle in a haystack,” he said. “We’ll conclude that it is a new introduction and that the numbers of fish are very low at this time and we have yet to see any evidence of successful reproduction.” 

Delray said fishermen are upset about the introduction of the northern pike to Lake Mary Ronan, which is believed to have been caused by a person. Angling groups from across the state have donated funds to almost quadruple the original $1,000 reward offered by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks for information leading to the arrest of the person responsible for the introduction. 

“They could be charged with a felony,” State Game Warden Ron Howell said. 

In Montana, it is illegal to transport any live fish from the body of water in which they are caught. Moving the fish to any other Montana pond, lake, stream, or river without permission from state authorities is also illegal. 

Fines of $2,000 to $10,000 and liability for costs incurred in trying to remove the species are monetary penalties attached to the offense. Violators also face loss of fishing, hunting and trapping privileges.

Despite the risks, people are still transferring live fish. Since mid-May mandatory aquatic invasive species station checkpoints across the state have encountered 58 cases of live fish. Checkpoints in Ronan, Coram and Thompson Falls were among those that found the fish, which included species of yellow perch, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, northern pike and walleye. 

It is mandatory for state citizens to stop at the checkpoints, but a recent question arose about whether or not tribal members have to stop at the Ronan checkpoint. 

In late July Howell stopped a tribal member towing a boat who blew past the Ronan check station.

“We don’t know who is and isn’t a tribal member when we stop them,” Howell said. “We can stop every boat on the state highway. (But) there is no tribal law that says that a tribal member has to stop at an aquatic invasive species check station ... Once we determined they were a tribal member, though, we had to let them go.” 

Howell said some of the tribal guidelines regarding live fish transfer are also unclear.

Tribal Division of Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation Manager Tom McDonald said while the rules might not be explicit, there should be some way to make tribal members stop. 

“If they are an angler, they would have to stop,” McDonald said. “They have to comply with all U.S. Coast Guard regulations.” 

He also said it is illegal to transport live animals on the reservation. 

McDonald said it might be possible to tighten the regulations in the future. 

Anyone with information about who introduced northern pike into Lake Mary Ronan is asked to call 1-800-TIP MONT. Callers do not need to identify themselves and may be eligible for a cash reward. Anglers are encouraged to keep any pike caught and report additional sightings of northern pike to FWP at (406) 752-5501.

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