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Saving a species: CSKT reveals bull trout project

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POLSON – Salish, Pend d'Oreille, and Kootenai people thrived for centuries on the rich bounty of Mission Valley’s natural resources. Bull trout, a native species of fish, have traditionally been an important food source for tribal people when other foods were out of season or completely consumed.

Today, Bull trout have dwindled to near extinction in North America due to changes in their natural habitat.

More than five years ago, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Information and Program Manager Germaine White, and Coordinator of History and Geography for the Salish and Pend d’Oreille Thompson Smith embarked on a project to save the species.

Both recently spoke about their project at a monthly meeting of the Mission Mountain Audubon Society in Polson.

White gave an overview of a newly completed multimedia information and education project that describes the ecology and importance of bull trout in the Mission Valley. She spoke about the relationship between bull trout and the Salish and Pend d'Oreille people, and the importance of educating the public, particularly youth, on Bull Trout and other natural resource issues.

The project consists of an integrated set of educational materials for children including an interactive DVD entitled “Explore the River: Bull Trout, Tribal People and the Jocko River.” The interactive media is paired with additional curriculum: a website, field journal and a storybook called “Bull Trout’s Gift.” The project is published and distributed by the University of Nebraska Press.

“We entered this project with humility,” White said. “Our goal is to remove disturbances that cause impacts.”

The media and books, geared towards middle school aged children, are designed to be provide a fun, interactive, educational experience that will leave a lasting impression. The media takes students through many different topics related to bull trout, now listed as threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Each chapter specializes in a different aspect of the fish, and ends with a section on restoration.

Students can make their own virtual fish traps on the computer screen, watch a video of how bull trout muscles work, and even restore a virtual river.

“The DVD walks them through bull trout life history, spawning, how they choose a spawning site, and dig a redd for their eggs,” White said. “Each chapter is incredibly rich with information.”

Interviews with tribal elders, who discuss the importance of bull trout as a source of survival for their ancestors, are also included.

“Students love to interact with the DVD,” White said.

The project was funded through a settlement decree for restoration, where the Tribes decided to focus on restoring the Jocko River.

The Jocko flows through the southern end of the Mission Mountain range before emptying into the Flathead River east of Dixon.

According to White, bull trout need cold, clean, complex and connected water in order to flourish. The human footprint left by rising numbers of residents and nonpoint source pollution (NPS) in this area has reduced bull trout to dangerously low numbers. NPS is unlike pollution from industrial and sewage plants, as it’s caused by rainfall or snowmelt moving over and through the ground. During this time, the water picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants ranging from fertilizers, herbicides, oil, grease, sediment from construction sites and dirt roads, salt from irrigation practices, acid drainage from abandoned mines to bacteria and nutrients from livestock and pets.

Bull trout require a narrow set of environmental conditions to survive and flourish, and their presence in a stream is a good indicator of a healthy watershed.

In Smith’s essay presentation, “Bull Trout and Systematic Change in Western Montana: The Wellsprings of an Ecological Crisis,” he explains the human relationship with fish, and how human order has changed quickly in a short amount of time.

“For the Salish and Pend d'Oreille tribes, fish were the most usual source of food because they were abundant in sheer numbers, and available year-round, unlike other food sources.

“Records from the early 19th century recall bull trout being plentiful,” Smith said. “They were very large, often exceeding 30 inches, and were the ideal food for sustaining life. (Fish) played an important role in their diet when foods dwindled in winter.”

Through this project, CSKT hopes to restore a healthy bull trout population in the upper watershed of the Jocko River where they once thrived.

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