How’s the Fishery?

The new head of FWP’s Fisheries Division talks candidly about the current state of fisheries management in Montana. INTERVIEW

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
July–August 2002

Last November Chris Hunter, a 12- year agency veteran, was named administrator of Montana FWP’s Fisheries Division. Hunter, 51, had been the assistant Fisheries Division administrator, a position he had held since 1999. He replaced Larry Peterman, who had been promoted to FWP chief of operations in September.

Hunter holds a master’s degree in zoology from the University of Montana. He began his career with FWP in 1989 as the Lower Missouri River Reservation biologist. In 1990 Hunter was named chief of the agency’s Special Projects Bureau. During 1991 he served as president of the Montana Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. Though fluent in all dialects of fisheries management, Hunter’s main expertise is in native fish, hydropower relicensing, and stream restoration.

Montana Outdoors recently interviewed Hunter to learn more about him and the future of fisheries management in Montana.

For nearly a decade you were chief of the Fisheries Division’s Special Projects Bureau. What did you work on?
Mainly native fish species—particularly Arctic grayling, bull trout, pallid sturgeon. And I was heavily into dam relicensing. For dam operators to get relicensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, they have to show they’re doing things good for the river and agree to mitigate [do or pay something in compensation for] the harm the dams do to water flows and fish populations.

That sounds…controversial. How did it get handled?
I learned there are two ways industry can do business with us. There’s the old, slow, adversarial way, which is what we’ve seen on several dams over the past 20 years. At the other end of the spectrum, however, was the Avista Company, which has dams on the lower Clark Fork. That company gets it. They were real committed to getting the relicensing done in cooperation with the community affected by their dams.

How so?
What Avista did that worked so well is they brought in all the interests, and I mean all. In the mid-1990s, they established a consensus group of 40 people representing anglers, county commissioners, landowners, environmentalists—the whole nine yards. Eventually they came up with a win-win solution, where the company got relicensed in record time and the others got the mitigation they wanted for the fish resource and recreation. I honestly didn’t think it could be done, that they could find some agreement among those diverse interests. But it happened. And it happened because Avista wanted it to happen.

Has that experience influenced your management style?
It has. For example, we used that same collaborative process for developing our westslope cutthroat trout plan. We invited anyone who was interested, anyone who might be affected, and asked them to sit down and advise us on writing the plan. I really think that by collaborating with other agencies, with landowners, with interest groups, and with regular citizens, we are going to make this work. If we are to realize any vision for fisheries management in this state, we have to work with all the other players—the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the various Indian tribes, and all the important conservation groups such as Walleye Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, and the Montana Wildlife Federation.

You mentioned vision. What is the agency’s vision for fisheries management?
Basically it’s two things. One, preserve and protect native fisheries. Two, provide a diversity of recreational opportunities for anglers.

Don’t the two goals conflict?
Sometimes. For example, on Flathead Lake we can’t provide full recreational and commercial fishing opportunities for lake trout and whitefish while at the same time protecting native bull trout and cutthroat. Something has to give a bit. Those are the hardest challenges to face.

So what do you do?
Well, on Flathead we worked with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, which co-manage the lake with us, to develop a management plan that—once again—was a collaborative process, involving the tribes, guides, lakeshore residents, local anglers, and a commercial fisherman. Not everyone was completely happy—which would have been pretty much impossible—but the final plan was one that protects the native fishery resources, provides for sport and commercial fishing interests, and is supported by all parties.

No one party gets everything it wants, but everyone at least gets something?

Isn’t that setting the bar a bit low?
Actually, just the opposite. It’s a very high standard because it’s extremely difficult to achieve consensus. The other day I saw a bumper sticker that said “Everything. All the Time.” You know what? That’s just not going to happen—at least not when it comes to Montana’s fisheries. Everyone can’t have everything they want all the time. It’s impossible. So what we try to do with fisheries management in Montana is strike a reasonable and fair balance, of protecting and preserving our fishery resources, providing recreational opportunities, and meeting the needs and desires of the public.

What other big fisheries management issues are going on now?
One is at Fort Peck Lake. The issue there is that some angling groups want us to stock more walleyes so they can have higher catch rates—rates we just don’t think are sustainable. So we’ve come up with a management plan that has reasonable catch rates but also has other goals such as increasing the average size of walleyes that anglers catch. We’re hoping it strikes that reasonable balance I was talking about earlier. One of the big problems at Fort Peck is that the economy there is in tough shape. So it’s not just recreation we’re talking about but also the economy associated with fishing. That’s really important to people in those areas. And we can’t take those concerns lightly.

Flathead Lake, the Beaverhead-Big Hole, the Smith…. So many fisheries issues seem to be centered more on economic and social concerns than on biology. How do you handle that? What sort of expertise does FWP have in those fields?
It’s tough. All our fisheries biologists have graduate degrees in fisheries, and our Fisheries Division is a national leader in progressive fisheries management. But we don’t get much training in community relations or sociology. Then we ask our biologists to solve difficult social issues.

It isn’t fair to them or the public. I think that’s an area where we really need to focus on improving—how we listen to the public and how we communicate with the public. One encouraging sign is that the department recently hired a river recreation management specialist to work on these issues, which should help a lot.

You’ve spent a good part of your career promoting and managing Montana’s native fish species. What are the issues there?
Well for one thing, just getting people to understand the difference between a native and nonnative fish is a big step. We recently did a survey and found that two out of three people incorrectly believe the rainbow trout is native to Montana. That shows we need to do some work on education. But at the same time, most people know that bull trout and westslope cutthroats are natives, which is good news. And we found strong support for conserving native fish. We’re lucky that most of the native fish we’re working on are sport fish, such as cutthroats, pallid sturgeon, and sauger. Anglers have a high regard for those species. It’s a lot harder with a nongame fish like a stonecat.

The biggest issue for us is in restoration, especially when you have to remove a nonnative to restore a native. Take the controversy over the Cherry Creek restoration, in which we plan to remove brook trout and stock native westslope cutthroats. That has been real contentious, although I think Cherry Creek is not a good example because much of the opposition has been more focused on the landowner, Ted Turner, than on the project itself.

Even if Cherry Creek isn’t the best example, it does bring up an important question: How does FWP balance the rights of anglers accustomed to a certain fishing opportunity with the rights of those—anglers and nonanglers—who want you to restore native fish species?
First we have to be selective about where we attempt to restore native fish. There seems to be a misconception that we want to restore westslope cutthroats and other natives everywhere. It’s just not true. For one thing, it’s not even possible. For instance, there’s no way we could remove browns and rainbows from the Madison and restore it to cutthroat and grayling even if we wanted to. And we don’t want to.

But aren’t you doing some cutthroat restorations on the Madison?
We are on some tributaries of the Madison that browns are not using for spawning, and we’re hoping some cutts will trickle down into the Madison and provide some additional angling opportunity.

Warmwater species, particularly the walleye, are attracting a big following. What’s FWP doing on warmwater management?
One of the most important things we do is conduct lake surveys to keep track of walleye populations and then try to get that information out to anglers so they know what to expect. For example, if we see a big year-class coming through the system and can tell anglers that they’ll be catching a lot of little 12-inch walleyes next year, but not to worry because those fish will be decent-sized 16-inchers in a few more years—and that in fact is what happens—then anglers start to have more faith in the work we do.

We appear to be in the fourth consecutive year of a drought. How will that affect your management priorities?
The drought is huge, absolutely huge. We’re seeing impacts everywhere. On reservoirs, many boat ramps are completely inaccessible because the water is 200, 300 yards from the ramp. Some reservoirs, like Clark Canyon and Fresno, are puddles. Even Fort Peck is way down, to where it was in the early 1990s.

For coldwater fisheries it’s even worse. There is a good chance we’ll be closing the Big Hole, the Beaverhead, and the Jefferson again this year the way things are going. And we’ll probably need to have the “hoot owl” closure on the Missouri, when we close fishing at noon and open it at midnight.

That’s all a bit depressing. Any good news to report?
Oh yes. There really are so many great things going on, like our native fish restoration work, our continued success managing wild trout, and our Fishing Access Site Program, which so far has created over 320 fishing sites throughout the state. There’s also the possible removal of the Milltown Dam, which, with the potential for restoring the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers, is about the most exciting fisheries news in my memory.

I’m also really excited about the potential of the Natural Resources Damages Program and the money that will soon be available for some major restoration work.

Not the most exciting name for a program. What’s it about?
The state of Montana filed suit against Arco for all the historic environmental damages done at the Anaconda smelter. The lawsuit has been ongoing a long time, and so far the partial settlement has freed up a fair amount of money to go to environmental restoration. We’re hoping the entire suit will be settled in the next three years, and there should be a substantial settlement for restoring the upper Clark Fork. And there are tremendous opportunities for other river and stream restorations over the next 20 years.

Then there are the mitigation dollars resulting from the hydropower relicensing on the Madison, Missouri, and Clark Fork rivers from PPL Montana and Avista. For example, money from Avista will go to improve habitat on the tributaries of the lower Clark Fork and find ways to allow bull trout and cutts to move around the dam.

So much water to manage, so many issues to address. Do you have any time to fish Montana’s rivers and lakes?
Always. Now that our kids are off to college, my wife and I have more time to hike, backpack, canoe, kayak, fish. I’m hoping that in this job I will make lots of new friends who want to take me fishing. I’d really like to learn to catch shovelnose sturgeon. They’re very abundant, we have the biggest shovelnose in the Missouri River system, and sturgeon are great eating.Bear bullet