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The Flathead Fish Project
South Fork of the Flathead River South Fork of the Flathead River

Visiting the South Fork Flathead River drainage is like stepping back in time. Building the native fish population would help maintain this place that people many consider very special. An idea to do just this has raised a number of important issues about wilderness values, fish and wildlife management in wilderness areas, and the logistics of conducting such projects. Different points of view on those issues makes implementing such a project difficult, even though stakeholders agree on the ultimate goal of native fish restoration.

The History Behind the Project

The South Fork is home to prized populations of westslope cutthroat trout, a Montana native. Since the Hungry Horse Dam was built on the South Fork Flathead River in 1952, non-native fish have been stopped from moving upstream into the drainage. Beginning in the 1950s, however, biologists have found populations of non-native and hybrid fish in the upper South Fork. These fish gained a fin-hold because of previous stocking in the high mountain lakes, going as far back as the early railroad days.

In the 1980s, after sophisticated genetic technology became available, FWP commissioned a University of Montana study of fish genetics in these lakes to quantify "who was who." The study revealed which populations were pure westslope cutthroat and which were hybridized with rainbow or Yellowstone cutthroat trout. FWP then developed a genetically pure brood stock of westslope cutthroat and began "swamping" some of those lakes that had hybridized populations - pouring in sufficient quantities of purebloods that the non-natives would be overwhelmed and eventually displaced.

In many lakes, swamping successfully increased the percentage of westslope cutthroat trout genes, but fish populations were still "tainted" with non-native genes. Plus, the swamping program combined with routine stocking raised fish populations to artificially high numbers, increasing competition for resources. "In some cases, they weren't healthy enough to spawn," says FWP's Grant Grisak, "and we were losing the quality of the fishery."

In 1997, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was petitioned to list the westslope cutthroat as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, by a group including American Wildlands, the Gallatin-Madison Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Clearwater Biodiversity Project, Montana Environmental Information Center, Idaho Watersheds Project, and Montana outfitter Bud Lilly. Listing was initially denied, but after an appeal, the court ruled in April 2002 that USFWS had not adequately considered hybridization as a threat to the westslope cutthroat and must reconsider its decision.

Federal listing means the US Fish and Wildlife Service would have the predominant role among federal and state agencies in managing the fish, possibly resulting in new restrictions on activities in areas where the fish exist. Some argue that conserving the fish is important in order to avoid the federal intervention. Others contend that federal listing may result in more federal funds available for conservation programs.

Meanwhile, in 1999, several agencies and organizations signed a Memorandum of Understanding to conserve the westslope cutthroat in Montana, which set the goal of ensuring long-term, self-sustaining persistence of the subspecies in the Flathead and four other major drainages. The MOU is not legally binding; in essence, the participants agree to do their best to implement the recommended conservation actions.

Fish Facts

  • 56 native fish species still exist in Montana.
  • 18 are classified as Montana "Species of Special Concern."
  • Three are protected under the Endangered Species Act: threatened bull trout, endangered pallid sturgeon, endangered white surgeon.
  • Montana's best-known fish are not native, including rainbow trout, brown trout, largemouth bass, walleye.

("FWP works to rebuild native fish, habitat" by Tom Palmer, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Billings Gazette, September 16, 2001)

A Quick Tour of the Area

The South Fork drainage encompasses 1,700 square miles of land, all of it public. Roughly speaking, the north half is National Forest (Flathead), and the south half is Wilderness (Bob Marshall). Broadly speaking, the Wilderness Act requires that wilderness be maintained as it was at the time of designation; mechanized equipment is generally not allowed except for what is necessary to administer the area.

Management responsibility for fish and wildlife is retained by the states. The details of how this management should occur in coordination with the federal agency administering the wilderness is outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (representing the state fish and game agencies).

The South Fork Flathead drainage has 356 lakes. Of these lakes:

  • 29 contain genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout
  • 21 contain exotic or hybrid trout
  • 298 are fishless.

The northern lakes feed streams that eventually flow into the Hungry Horse Reservoir, and those in the south similarly feed the South Fork. The Reservoir and the South Fork have the largest, purest stock of westslope cutthroat trout anywhere. In addition, the drainage contains almost 1,900 miles of stream habitat.

Nearly all of these lakes historically had no fish at all. As the area was settled, pioneering anglers stocked fish they had known from back home, brook trout from the east and rainbow trout from the west. In the 1930s, the state game department began stocking the lakes for recreational fishing, and the area has become a prime spot for outfitters and anglers.

Over time, the stocked non-native fish migrated out of the lakes and interbred with genetically pure westslope cutthroat. "We want to intercept that movement downstream before they get to the South Fork or the Hungry Horse Reservoir," says Grisak.

That Brings Us to the Current Proposal …

… which is to remove the non-natives and hybrids and then re-stock the lakes with purestrain westslope cutthroat.

This project is being undertaken to protect perhaps the largest purestrain population of westslope cutthroat trout in existence. Over time, these natives would migrate out of the lakes to reinforce natives in the intermittent streams and eventually replace any non-native fish remaining in the system. FWP has successfully used this approach in several fisheries in the South Fork.

You may be thinking the lakes would then be returned to their "natural state." No, because most were historically fishless, as Friends of the Wild Swan and others argue in advocating a return to their condition before human settlement: no fish at all. Some say that leaving the lakes fishless will allow amphibians and plankton to recover, although an FWP study indicates that amphibian and plankton populations in the area are generally in good shape.

On the other hand, FWP biologists have stood before outfitters and guides and told them that some people want to leave the lakes fishless, a point of view the outfitters and guide do not understand.

Some outfitters support the project because they market the South Fork as a native fishery. Yet another perspective: leave well enough alone. Some anglers have said the project should be abandoned and the lakes left alone for people to enjoy as they have for generations.

As for tribal involvement, the Flathead Reservation is adjacent to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation have expressed support for this project.

Angler Facts

  • Surveys show that 67% of Montana anglers fish for trout or salmon and 37% fish for warm water species, with walleyes being preferred.
  • Residents make up 58.4% of the state's license buyers; 41.6% are nonresidents.
  • About 34% of all adult residents purchase fishing licenses annually.
  • The rainbow trout is the most common game fish found in a Montana angler's creel.
  • In 2000, anglers spent an estimated $222 million in Montana on transportation, lodging, food, guide fees, and other direct purchases, not including license fees.
  • Anglers cumulatively spend about 3.2 million days fishing Montana waters each year.

(Mark Henckel quoting the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Fishing Log Newsletter in his newspaper column, March 3, 2002)

The proposal raises many questions, some controversial. FWP manages the wildlife, and the Forest Service manages the land, so the two agencies are working along with other stakeholders to arrive at the answers:

  • How to transport the necessary equipment and personnel to these remote lakes? Livestock transport could take many days of pack horses and mules pounding the trails. Using helicopters would be much faster and ultimately less costly, although some have protested the use of mechanized travel in designated wilderness, even for management purposes.
  • How will users feel about reduced recreational opportunities as the lakes recover from treatment—not only outfitters with clients but also the general public? (The proposal does include a rotation schedule for treating the lakes so that outfitters would always have sites available to them.)
  • How will the removal of the fish affect amphibians and insects? Looking out farther, how will the work affect the bull trout and grizzly bear—both covered by the Endangered Species Act—and other species in the affected area?
  • Removal of fish would likely require the use of chemical fish toxicants. Some groups feel the use of chemicals is inconsistent with wilderness.

Perhaps the most fundamental question: Is the long-term benefit of restoring the fish worth the short-term impact caused by the implementation of the project?

Next Steps

This proposal is undergoing an environmental assessment directed by the Bonneville Power Administration, which operates the Hungry Horse Dam and has available federal dollars for environmental mitigation projects like this one.

The fishless debate, the desire to maintain wilderness values during the project, the possible impact of the ESA decision—throughout it all, wildlife managers say they're doing their best to achieve westslope cutthroat conservation.

Sources

  • Interviews: Pat Saffel, FWP; Grant Grisak, FWP; Deb Mucklow, USFS.
  • "Court rulings favor restoration of westslope cutthroat trout," Associated Press, 4/04/02
  • "Memorandum of Understanding and Conservation Agreement for Westslope Cutthroat Trout in Montana," Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, May 1999.

This vignette was completed in April 2003.