Bullish on bull trout
?Reports on endangered species are usually gloomy, but not so with bull trout in Montana.
A close cousin to nonnative lake and brook trout, bull trout are Montana’s largest native salmonid, reaching over 20 pounds here. Bull trout are a beautiful fish found only in the state’s cleanest and coldest rivers and streams. Because it needs pristine water, the species was harmed during the 20th century by mining waste and streamside vegetation loss that resulted in warmer water. In addition, bull trout are generally unwary and aggressive predators that can easily be caught by sport anglers, which added to their demise.
Bull trout were listed as a federally threatened species in Montana in 1998. Since then, FWP and other state and federal agencies have worked with landowners to help bull trout recover. Among the most significant achievements so far:
1. We’ve identified 115 bull trout core areas and connecting spawning habitat within 12 major restoration areas, set a goal to restore bull trout numbers to levels that can sustain regulated sport harvest across the species’ range, and have outlined and begun the work needed to meet that goal.
2. Since 2001, FWP and USFWS biologists, in cooperation with Avista Corporation and PPL Montana, have been trucking bull trout upstream around three hydroelectric dams on the lower Clark Fork River to reach spawning tributaries. Eventually, we hope, the dams will be modified to allow fish to move upstream on their own. Until then, recent advancements in DNA technology are allowing us to return spawning bull trout to the rivers where they were born, which maintains the genetic health of their offspring.
3. We’re working with Idaho agencies, Trout Unlimited, and others to help anglers identify bull trout so they don’t accidentally keep these fish when fishing for other species.
4. On the Blackfoot River, we have been working for more than a decade with landowners to screen water diversions that had been luring bull trout to their death. In addition, changes in cattle grazing regimes, stream narrowing, bank vegetation restoration, and other improvements on the Blackfoot’s spawning tributaries have led to colder, cleaner water that bull trout need to survive.
5. Starting in 2004, we opened Hungry Horse Reservoir and Lake Koocanusa to limited bull trout harvest, and the South Fork of the Flathead River to catch-and-release fishing. That’s a positive sign, because it means those bull trout populations are strong enough to sustain some angling pressure. Last year, FWP issued more than 2,500 “catch cards,” required by anglers to fish for bull trout in those waters, and we expect to issue even more in 2005.
6. As early as next year, the Milltown Dam could be removed, opening up hundreds of miles of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers and spawning tributaries to bull trout, which have been blocked from those waters since the dam was built in 1908.
Certainly there are still many problems remaining that hamper full bull trout recovery. Among them are mining pollution, habitat loss, streambed siltation, competition with lake trout, hybridization with brook trout, and poaching. Despite these obstacles, however, Montanans seem determined to restore the bull trout across its former range. That’s why FWP is doing all it can to make this bright spot on the endangered species landscape even brighter.
M. Jeff Hagener is Director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks