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Montana Native Fish -- Nature's Keepers

Friday, August 31, 2001

Fish & Wildlife

They 're an odd bunch with old-time Hollywood names like Spoonhead, Stonecat, Cutthroat, Brassy, Redbelly, and Shovelnose.

But they're not film noir crooks. They're Montana's native fish.

As a group, all 56 of these often overlooked cast of characters still exist in Montana, but 18 are classified as Montana "Species of Special Concern" and three native fish--the threatened bull trout, and the endangered pallid sturgeon and white sturgeon-are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Most of our best-known fish-rainbow trout, brown trout, largemouth bass and walleye, for instance-are not native to Montana, but were introduced as sport fish by new comers over the past 100 years or so.

"Montana's native fish adapted to life here over thousands of years," said Bob Snyder, FWP's enthusiastic native fish coordinator who's charged with helping FWP and all Montanans understand more about the state's seldom seen fish. "You have to admire their tenacity," he said. "They've carved out a life in Montana's streams by adapting to wild spring floods, summer's drought, and then those long and bitter cold winters. They're survivors, and so far none have been cast off the island, which is a real testament to the people of Montana."

Still, as new settlers changed Montana's landscape, the cycle of life also changed for many of Montana's native fish. The eventual planned and unplanned introductions of non-native fish also added new competitive challenges to the natives' struggle to survive.

Snyder, meanwhile, is attempting to build Montana's first native fish management plan to shed more conservation light on native fish populations and their habitats.He said the best plan would define ways to:

  • Monitor the distribution and abundance of native fish.
  • Maintain or enhance native fish populations and habitats.
  • Maintain, conserve and enhance native sport fish populations-cutthroat trout, bull trout, Arctic grayling, sauger, shovelnose sturgeon, and paddlefish--to continue to allow angling and to allow anglers to keep some of the fish they catch.
  • Invite local communities, scientists and other state and federal agencies to offer their expertise and advice in the conservation of native fish populations and habitats.
  • Balance everyday management of Montana's world class cold water (trout) and warm-water (walleye, bass)fisheries with everyday native fish management.
  • "Montana is a big place with lots of different fishing opportunities" Snyder said, noting that of the 60 fish listed as official Montana-record catches, 30 are Montana natives. "We can have introduced smallmouth bass and native sauger in the upper Yellowstone River, just like we have introduced Hungarian partridge and native sharp-tailed grouse in some areas. What we need to do now is learn more about all our native fish and the places where they're found."

    For Snyder, it's a bit like a treasure hunt. "These native fish are Montana's collective family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation," Snyder said. "The stonecat is a very cool and rather small catfish with eyes on top of its head and a spine that can deliver a bee-like sting. That unique critter lives right here in Montana. Our cutthroat trout are still as fine a trout today as when they were first described by Lewis and Clark, but we really have to help reconnect our cutthroat trout to their native ranges, and we can do it. I like to consider our native fish as Montana's own keepers, stored away with all the treasures that make Montana such a special place. They're all still here and it's up to all of us to keep it that way."

    To help spur interest in Montana's native fish, FWP has produced "Montana Native" bumper stickers, lapel pins, and FWP's Internet-based Bull Trout Education and Identification Program at fwp.state.mt.us.This fall, a special Fishes of Montana CD, which will also be available on FWP's website, will be delivered to Montana teachers throughout the state.For more information on Montana's native fish, contact your nearest FWP office.