From Banning TNT to Scanning DNA

From Banning TNT to Scanning DNA

What 100-plus years of fisheries management says about Montana and its people. By Amber Steed and Tom Dickson. By Amber Steed and Tom Dickson.

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors May-June 2017 issue

You can learn a lot about Montana’s changing values and priorities over the past century by studying the state’s literature, art, and politics—and fisheries management.

It’s true. How Montanans regard their streams, rivers, lakes, and fish populations—and how the state has responded—underscores a growing appreciation of and desire to protect these and other natural resources.

People have always wanted to catch fish in Montana—from trout in remote mountain lakes and scenic valley rivers to, in later years, walleye and other species in vast reservoirs. Historically, Salish and Kootenai Indians captured spawning bull trout using willow traps and rock weirs. In the late 19th century, commercial fishermen netted truckloads of trout for local markets. Families in the early 1900s used hook and line to fill baskets of fish to stock their larders.

Recreational angling also has a long history here. “I amused myself in fishing,” Captain Meriwether Lewis wrote in 1805 after catching westslope cutthroat trout below the Great Falls of the Missouri River. Today flotillas of drift boats moving down the Madison, Bighorn, Yellowstone, and Bitterroot Rivers in midsummer embody that passion. For some anglers, fishing for native species—cutthroat trout and sauger especially—has become a pleasure in itself.

No matter why Montanans fish, they have always insisted that the state maintain abundant populations. How the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Fisheries Division has responded to that challenge over the past century is a story of evolving public values, scientific breakthroughs, and political leadership.

Extract at all costs
Trout conservation was the last thing anyone considered in the spring of 1886, when, on the first log drive down the Blackfoot River, 20 million board feet of timber was sent downstream to the Montana Improvement Company’s Bonner mill. At the time, and for decades thereafter, Montanans sawed, mined, and plowed as much timber, minerals, and prairie as possible to feed the state’s increasing population and fuel its burgeoning economy. That resource extraction could damage water, soil, native vegetation, and fish and wildlife was of little concern—at first.

Montana’s window of seemingly in-exhaustible natural resources was brief. Bison, elk, beaver, and other land animals were nearly gone from most of the state by the late 1800s. Fisheries suffered, too. Explosives, seines, poisons, and other destructive or large-scale harvest methods rapidly depleted trout populations. New dams stopped fish from reaching spawning waters. Irrigators drained creeks to water crops in late summer. Communities used streams as sewage canals. As early as 1891, the U.S. Fish Commission reported that it “did not find any fish” when netting the Clark Fork near Deer Lodge because of toxic runoff from copper smelting upstream in the Butte-Anaconda area.

Intent as they were on building towns, railroads, dams, mines, and more, it took a while for Montanans to notice that fish stocks, previously so abundant, were dwindling. One of Montana’s first fishing regulations, passed in 1899, made it illegal to use dynamite (known as “giant powder”) for “catching, stunning, or killing fish.” Other early regulations required a license to fish, registration of all fish ponds with the Board of Fish and Game Commissioners (established in 1895), fish screens on irrigation intakes to prevent stranding fish in hay fields, and that mills stop dumping sawdust into streams and rivers.

Now Montana had fish and game regulations—but no one to enforce compliance. “The vastness of Montana Territory increased the difficulty in enforcing wildlife laws, and the Legislature was particularly lax regarding enforcement,” historian Joan Louise Brownell wrote in The Genesis of Wildlife Conservation in Montana. Finally, in 1901, the state hired its first game warden, W. F. Scott, who appointed eight deputy wardens across the state. Though only rudimentary, fisheries management was under way.

Stock, then stock more
By the early 20th century, regulations and enforcement had addressed environmental degradation—such as by outlawing mining waste in public waters. But industrial and municipal development continued ever faster. Silt from eroding clear-cut hillsides suffocated trout eggs. Factories dumped industrial waste in rivers and streams. Native fish like cutthroat trout and bull trout that evolved in clean, clear water couldn’t survive the contamination and relentless overharvest. Yet Montanans still wanted to catch fish.

Capitalizing on recent breakthroughs in salmonid cultivation elsewhere in the United States, Montana began to use hatcheries to grow fish—primarily non- native rainbow, brown, lake, and brook trout—and release them for public recreation. Stocking fish quickly became the state’s top fisheries-management priority. It not only replaced fish stocks depleted by pollution but also allowed crews to put trout in fishless mountain lakes and stock newly created reservoirs. “Practically every accessible water in the state received fish of some kind at the discretion of the planter and without regard to actual need or desirability,” former state fisheries chief William Alvord wrote in his history of Montana fisheries management.

The U.S. Fish Commission built the Bozeman National Fish Hatchery in 1896 to produce rainbow and brook trout. The first state-owned hatchery opened in Anaconda in 1908, followed by 13 more by 1925.

Private hatcheries, operated by local sportsmen’s groups, popped up just as quickly. Montana established fish stations on various streams in the 1920s to take eggs and milt from wild populations for the hatcheries. In 1933 alone, fisheries workers harvested 22 million brown trout eggs in the Madison River drainage and 12 million rainbow trout eggs at Hebgen Lake. “Fishermen were accustomed to seeing hatchery trucks plant the Madison [River] and naturally associated catching trout with the hatchery,” a 1985 Montana Outdoors article on trout management noted.

The state reared fish for eastern Montana, too. Fisheries crews raised walleye, northern pike, largemouth bass, and other coolwater species for stocking in farm ponds, reservoirs, and rivers.

fishing history

Science informing decisions
Stocking seemed like a foolproof way to keep Montana’s waters filled with catchable fish. The sporting press certainly thought so. From the 1940s through ’60s, Joe Brooks, Ted Trueblood, and other outdoors writers sang the praises of western trout rivers in Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, and other national publications. Montana trout advocates like Dan Bailey and Bud Lilly built world-renowned fly shops and guiding services based on fishing for stocked rainbows and browns in the Yellowstone, Madison, and other storied rivers.

To improve the effectiveness of its stocking program, the Fisheries Division in 1947 created a fisheries biology section. The state’s first fisheries biologist, Charles Phenicie, soon conducted groundbreaking scientific surveys of Montana’s fish populations, streams, and rivers to better understand how stocked trout survived. As the 1950 federal Dingell-Johnson Act (which taxed angling gear to fund state fish conservation) and a new fisheries-management course at Montana State University added biologists and student volunteers to its ranks, the Fisheries Division began gathering vast amounts of data. Crews measured stream flows and conducted creel surveys to ask anglers about their catch. They used new electrofishing technology to capture fish, and applied biological science to age those fish.

By the mid-20th century, stocking still dominated Montana fisheries management, but biologists now used data from studies when making management decisions. Based on research, the Fisheries Division varied the size of stocked fish, depending on species and water type. Starting in 1953, it was department policy to stock only cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, and Arctic grayling in streams, and all fish had to be at least six inches long. Concerned about the introduction of harmful species, fisheries managers employed scientific data in convincing Montana lawmakers to ban unauthorized stocking.

As they studied streams to better understand stocking success, fisheries crews also learned how human development damaged trout habitat. Montanans had become increasingly concerned about the rapid construction of two-lane highways being built or expanded across the state. “Montana’s best waters are gradually disappearing [as] whole channels are being changed by the road builders,” the Montana Fish and Game Department opined in a 1955 issue of Montana Wildlife. In response, the department launched a study of fish habitat in 13 western and central Montana streams before and after highway construction. The startling results—in some cases trout populations declined by as much as 75 percent—led to the Montana Stream Protection Act of 1963, the first bill of its kind in the United States.

fishing history

New perspectives
By the 1950s, some fisheries biologists had begun to quietly question the effectiveness of stocking. “The idea then was that stocked fish were an addition to the wild populations, that two plus two equaled four,” retired FWP biologist Dick Vincent said in a 2004 Montana Outdoors interview. “But a few of us wondered if maybe two plus two equaled three or even less.” It was not until the early 1970s that a three-year study on the Madison River and nearby O’Dell Creek proved that stocking hatchery-reared fish in streams and rivers damaged existing wild trout populations and reduced the number of large trout for anglers. As biologists quit stocking rivers and restricted harvest regulations on popular trout waters to maintain populations, Montana entered the era of wild trout management.

Meanwhile, both Montana and the nation had begun enacting laws to protect the environment and imperiled species. To address DDT pesticide runoff, pulp mill pollution, and mining waste, Montana passed a comprehensive water pollution control law in 1955. In 1972, Montana enacted a new state constitution that guaranteed a clean and healthful environment. Several years later, Montana conservationists, assisted by fisheries biologists armed with reams of scientific data, successfully fought efforts to dam the Yellowstone River and turn the Paradise Valley into a series of reservoirs.

Concerned about the disappearance of bald eagles and other popular wildlife, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. In Montana, the law raised public awareness of the intrinsic value of native species, including fish, and compelled the state to begin efforts to recover bull trout, white and pallid sturgeon, westslope and Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and Arctic grayling.

In the 1980s, eastern Montana fisheries biologists began the first-ever surveys of prairie streams. Over time, crews seined 18,000 miles of streams and found 46 different fish species, 26 of them native, including the northern redbelly dace, emerald shiner, and Iowa darter. The surveys shed light on the rich diversity of aquatic life in eastern Montana.

One of the largest eastern Montana species was the pallid sturgeon, which was fast disappearing. Completion of Fort Peck Dam in 1940 had been a mixed blessing. By impounding the river, it eventually created a major walleye fishing destination. But it also blocked sturgeon from spawning waters upstream. On the Yellowstone River, Intake Diversion Dam similarly stymied the prehistoric fish. Despite years of Fisheries Division research on and advocacy for the federally protected species, adult pallid sturgeon numbers dropped to fewer than 100, making it one of the rarest fish in North America.

fishing history

Like Fort Peck, dams elsewhere in Montana represented a fisheries paradox. Some created world-class trout waters, such as the Missouri River below Holter and the Bighorn River below Yellowtail. Others, such as a series of hydropower facilities on the lower Clark Fork River, blocked bull trout migration, hastening the decline of what became a federally threatened species.

By the late 1980s, it seemed biologists could catch their breath. With the exception of dams, major threats to Montana’s fisheries and fish habitats—municipal pollution, silt washing in from clear-cut mountainsides, stream channelization, and mining waste—were being reduced thanks to improved industrial practices and stricter laws. The Montana Legislature had also determined that fish survival was one “beneficial use” of river water, giving the Fisheries Division legal means to maintain flows to benefit trout and other species. In 1984, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in favor of public access to streams and rivers, accelerating the eventual development of more than 300 fishing access sites and boosting fishing recreation that funded fisheries management.

But even with these achievements, fisheries biologists could not relax. Montana was becoming a victim of its own success.

Dealing with newcomers
For years, movies, tourism campaigns, and rhapsodic reports from outdoors writers depicted Montana as a western paradise. People flocked to the scenic state to put down roots or just wave a fly rod for a week. The influx led to increased streamside housing development, growing threats of fish disease and harmful invasive species, and mounting pressure on the state’s finite fish populations.

The Fisheries Division responded with vigorous scientific study using sophisticated tools. Biologists surgically implanted tiny radio transmitters into fish to track where species spawned so those waters could be protected. They retooled fish hatcheries to raise native species like Arctic grayling for restoration projects. Biologists found ways to make recreational fish like rainbow trout better able to survive in the wild, began analyzing DNA residue in streams to determine which fish species lived there, and created computerized maps showing the disappearance of genetically pure cutthroat from 90 percent of the species’ historic range.

In response to growing public demand for walleye on Fort Peck Reservoir, biologists teamed with local anglers to strip eggs and milt of spawning fish for hatchery propagation. Using science-based guidelines, FWP now stocks millions of newly hatched fish in Fort Peck each year to produce one of the nation’s most acclaimed walleye fisheries.

The dangers of fish pathogens made state and national headlines in 1994 when biologists discovered that whirling disease was devastating the Madison River’s rainbow trout population. Disease had long been on biologists’ radar. As early as 1969, they convinced Montana legislators to ban the import of infected fish and create the state’s first fish-health program. Working with state and federal fish labs, biologists detected diseases in wild and reared fish, inspected hatcheries, and responded to outbreaks.

Though the Madison’s rainbow population rebounded—perhaps because surviving trout passed disease-resistant genes to new generations—whirling disease remains in many Montana trout streams. Biologists also monitor for proliferative kidney disease (PKD) and infectious hematopoietic necrosis (IHN) virus, both of which can wipe out hatchery stocks and threaten wild populations.

Also concerning Montanans—and FWP fisheries biologists—are aquatic invasive plants and animals. Already some Montana waters are beset by New Zealand mud snails, Eurasian watermilfoil, and curly-leaf pondweed. The Fisheries Division’s Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) staff work with legislators, businesses, fishing groups, and communities to check the spread of these unwanted species and prevent new infestations. Crews inspect and clean thousands of boats each summer at check
stations. Billboards and radio and TV announcements urge boaters to “Clean, Drain, Dry” their craft. In early 2017, after detection of the first invasive mussel larvae in Montana waters, FWP and other agencies and partners mobilized a massive containment operation.

fishing history

What’s in store?
Montanans’ values and priorities regarding their fisheries, streams, and rivers continue to evolve. Jobs and economic growth remain essential, but now clean water and abundant outdoor recreation do, too. Though anglers still want to catch non-native rainbow and brown trout, perch, and walleye, they increasingly value bull trout, sauger, and other indigenous fish. Aquatic invasive species, for years not even on most peoples’ radar, are now seen as major threats to Montana ecosystems, industry, and agriculture.

For fisheries biologists, responding to public demands will become harder and more complex. Housing and commercial development near streams and rivers continues to intensify. Growing angling pressure and recreational use such as personal watercraft riding, whitewater rafting, and kayaking create overcrowding and conflict. These days, managing fisheries can be as much about sociology as it is about science.

Then there’s climate change. Hotter-than-average summers are straining many fisheries. Trout and grayling especially struggle to survive in waters that become too low, too warm, or both.

Despite the challenges, fisheries biologists remain hopeful. Montana remains America’s premier trout-fishing destination. Walleye size and catch rates far exceed national averages. Biologists know more about native fish—from sauger and blue suckers to northern pikeminnows and bull trout—than ever and are using that knowledge to conserve those populations. Biologists also stay abreast of fast-changing technology and science to better understand, protect, and manage Montana’s fisheries. Financially, the Fisheries Division continues to find new ways to bolster traditional funding sources to keep up with growing public demands. And even though invasive mussels have arrived, FWP and other agencies have the knowledge, resources, and, hopefully, public cooperation necessary to limit the species’ spread within the state.

Perhaps most encouraging for Montana’s future fisheries are the anglers and others who care so much about the state’s waters. Biologists can’t manage fish populations on their own. Collaborating with landowners, lawmakers, fishing groups, and other agencies, the FWP Fisheries Division secures conservation easements, maintains water flows, increases public fishing access, and promotes effective legislation. Using smart, community-based conservation work, Montana has kept the grayling and cutthroat trout from unnecessarily being listed as endangered.

Fisheries management in Montana has changed dramatically since the days of simply banning dynamite and poisons. And it will continue to evolve in years to come. What won’t change is biologists’ commitment to, and public demand for, conserving Montana’s vast and valuable aquatic resources.Bear bullet

fishing history


Amber Steed is an FWP fisheries biologist in Kalispell. Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors.


The conundrum of catch-and-release
As Montana trout anglers became more environmentally conscious in the 1970s and ’80s, a growing number began to reconsider the long-held practice of harvesting every fish they caught. Because family incomes were rising, fishing for food became less necessary. What’s more, bass and Atlantic salmon anglers elsewhere in North America were proving that released game fish could be caught repeatedly.

For Montana fisheries managers, the growth of catch-and-release was a double-edged sword. It meant reduced concern about anglers overharvesting fish stocks. Yet fisheries biologists were less able to use harvest to manage fish populations. For instance, biologists say they could likely increase the average size of trout on some rivers if anglers would keep more fish, giving remaining trout more room and food. In other rivers, increased harvest of non-natives such as brown trout might increase dwindling native westslope cutthroat populations.

But even where legal and biologically justifiable, killing any trout on some Montana rivers has become a form of sacrilege.


Two key habitat protection laws
One of Montana’s most important legal tools for conserving stream habitat is the 1975 Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act (known as the “310 Law” because it originated as HB 310). Under this law, private landowners must obtain a permit from the local conservation district for any project that might modify a streambed or stream bank. The local FWP biologist is part of a team that reviews the permit application. That ensures scientific and technical review of how a housing or other streamside development might add silt to spawning beds, reduce pool depth, remove streamside vegetation, or otherwise harm fish habitat.

This landmark legislation came 10 years after Montana lawmakers permanently reauthorized a similar groundbreaking law, the Stream Protection Act (initially passed in 1963). That legislation required public agencies to consider the harm that highway construction and other development could cause to stream channels. As a result, the Montana Department of Transportation now routinely widens road culverts so fish can pass, increases bridge spans to allow rivers more room to naturally meander, and builds bridges over streams rather than straightening waterways to run parallel to new roads (“channelization”), as was the previous practice.