Lipstick on a Mackinaw

In a master stroke of propaganda, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 1 put out a news release last week for the annual bull trout redd counts for the North and Middle forks of the Flathead River.

Spawning Surveys in the Flathead Show Positive Results for Bull Trout

The press release reports the redd numbers in glowing terms, stating that “This rebound is encouraging and indicates the current bull trout population is relatively stable.” And, “this translates to several million eggs deposited in the gravels of North and Middle Fork Flathead tributaries.”  Given the upbeat language in the FWP release, how could you help but think things are just hunky dory for threatened bull trout in the Flathead? Of course, news outlets fully took the bait with headlines like this;

Latest count: Strong numbers of bull trout in the Flathead

KAJ TV reported that “The latest surveys by biologists show the number of endangered bull trout in the upper reaches of the Flathead Basin hitting a new milestone.”FlatheadReddCounts

One slight problem; First of all, the press release came without the actual redd count data. Second, the reported 500 redds basinwide is not the actual count made in the index reaches. 500 is the number of tallied index redds expanded to what the math says it would be if if the whole basin had been counted. Which it was not. When looking at the actual numbers, it’s pretty easy to see that the redd counts are pretty much the same as they have been for quite a few years. Up a bit last year and down slightly this year. This year’s redd count in the index reaches was actually down slightly from the count last year and about the same as it was in 2008. Last year, FWP counted 229 redds in the index reaches. This year the count was 225, really not much change.

There was some good news, the count in the North Fork Flathead was up slightly over last year, although that was starting from a dismal count last year of only 58 redds with some tributaries reporting counts in the single digits. This year’s count on the North Fork only continues the decades-long trend of declining numbers. The Middle Fork Flathead counts were down a bit but again, that was from a pretty high count in 2012. So, looking at the data, it’s pretty easy to see that there really wasn’t much change in the numbers of spawning bull trout. Our native fish continue to face real and serious problems in the Flathead watershed. Not least among those being predation and competition from an overabundant lake trout population in Flathead Lake.

FWP is currently in negotiations with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes over management of Flathead Lake. The CSKT has proposed suppressing the bloated mackinaw population to restore some balance to the lake fishery and give our native bull trout and cutthroat trout some room to grow and FVTU supports that effort. FWP is opposed to any strategy that would reduce lake trout by even one fish. It is to the advantage of the state fishery folks to make it seem that everything is just rosy for our native fish and that there is no reason for reducing the lake trout population. It’s too bad that FWP chose to not release the actual numbers along with their propaganda statement, but what you need to remember is that what they are saying and what’s really happening in the watershed don’t necessarily always jive. FVTU encourages you to ask questions when you see these cheery statements from FWP. This year’s count is not a “rebound” nor does it represent “strong numbers” or a “positive result” and it certainly is no “milestone”. Always ask to see the real numbers and don’t rely on how the data are described by either side that has a finger in the pie.

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Montana Trout Unlimited offers $10,000 to help hook illegal-introduction culprits

mttulogo350Montana Trout Unlimited is upping the ante in the fight against illegal fish introductions that threaten Montana’s world-class trout fisheries. The organization is pledging $10,000 to Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to offer rewards for information leading to arrest and conviction of people who illegally plant fish in important trout waters.

Montana TU is moving to increase rewards available following news that fishermen this summer reported catching smallmouth bass in Seeley Lake, a development FWP attributes to an illegal introduction.

“Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money, but when you consider lost fishing opportunities, economic cost to local communities and the cost of getting rid of invasive species, this is an important investment,” said Montana TU Conservation Director Mark Aagenes.
Aagenes said the discovery of smallmouth bass in Seeley Lake is all the more disturbing given concerted efforts by FWP, land managers and the angling community to restore and improve native westslope cutthroat and bull trout fisheries in the lakes, tributaries and rivers that connect to Seeley Lake.

“Unfortunately, smallmouth bass dumped into a hugely important trout waters is only the latest example of a growing threat,” Aagenes said.
More than 280 waters have been infested by unplanned introductions of fish species, according to the most recent information available from FWP. State authorities have documented at least 500 instances of illegal introductions, fully one-fourth of which have occurred in the past decade alone. Introduced fish can compete with or prey on established species, spread disease and parasites, interbreed with established species, impair water quality, destroy existing aquatic habitat, and harm our fisheries in other ways.
Moving live fish or aquatic insects from one body of water to another is illegal in Montana. Violators face a potential $1,000 fine and six months behind bars. Montana TU hopes offering rewards for information through the TIP-MONT program will deter illegal introductions by increasing opportunities for prosecution. Call Montana FWP at 1-800-TIPMONT to report an illegal introduction. Montana TU expects to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with FWP to make the reward money available as soon as possible. Montana TU is also excited to work with the FWP commission and the Legislature to strengthen policies related to illegal introductions.

“Introducing invasive species of fish is like spreading noxious weeds,” Aagenes said. “Invasive fish are like knapweed with fins. We need to stop the problem before it gets worse.”

For more information contact Conservation Director Mark Aagenes at 543-0054 or mark@montanatu.org.

Here’s what you SHOULD be hearing from FWP on the Flathead Lake DEIS

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) is staffed by talented managers and biologists doing great work for Montana’s fish, wildlife, and parks around the state. Unfortunately, FWP managers are choosing speculation over peer-reviewed science and sound economics to drum up opposition to the Flathead Lake Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). A recent newspaper column, a letter or two by Flathead Lake commercial fishermen, and an editorial in a local paper all repeat inaccurate and unfounded arguments in opposition to the Flathead Lake DEIS. Here’s what FWP is not including in their information on opposition to the proposed plan.

1) The tribes have employed the scientific method with peer review using data and state of the art population modeling developed by well-regarded experts. This was undertaken at great cost, just as the tribes fund the Mack Days contests to the tune of $350,000 per year. FWP has not collected independent data, resorts to speculation and has not produced any models or other analysis to counter tribal results.

2) Biologists in all the agencies involved in this process, as well as other research, support implementing one of the reasonable alternatives to reduce the over-abundant lake trout population. FWP’s managers simply “believe” this and that won’t work. FWP’s efforts at Swan Lake demonstrate it can use science to inform lake trout suppression. But for some reason, they refuse to do so at Flathead Lake.

3) “Secure” to FWP means status quo, meaning you can’t fish for bull trout in the lake and river, angling for cutthroats will continue to be catch and release and bull trout will continue to be managed not by the State of Montana, but by the federal government because the fish will continue to be listed as threatened.

4) At the same time FWP bemoans the fact that fewer new anglers are coming on board, resulting in fewer license dollars to support department programs. FWP supports recreational fishery management at Flathead Lake that ensures it is dominated by lake trout, requiring specialized equipment and boats. Sticking with existing management on the lake means much fewer angling opportunities for the public, as evidenced by the steep decline in angler days since lake trout have exploded — from a high of 170,000 angler-days a year to 33,000 in 2011.

5) There is a reason most other biologists and nationally known fishery geneticists disagree that bull trout are “secure” in the Flathead. First, far fewer bull trout are showing up in sampling nets in the lake. Second, though the overall number of spawning redds in the North and Middle Forks combined appears to be steady — or as FWP claims “secure,” —  the North Fork population is dropping precipitously. The decline is masked by combining spawning there with that of the healthier Middle Fork.

6) There is absolutely no evidence that reducing the lake trout population as proposed in the DEIS will result in less fishing opportunity. FWP has no data to support this. Research from elsewhere indicates catch-rates for lake trout are likely to remain the same or slightly less than today. The benefit will be higher catch-rates for other species in the lake and river system.

7) Even if the most aggressive alternative in the DEIS is selected, there would still be more than 1 million lake trout in Flathead Lake. Enough to provide a good fishery and far more than recovered populations of bull trout and cutthroats.

8) FWP has no data demonstrating that current angling for lake trout represents a large part of the local economy, nor does the agency demonstrate that 1 million lake trout would result in much less angling opportunity. $20 million is misquoted as the value of the lake trout fishery. That, of course, is the value of the total Flathead fishery, including money spent angling on the Flathead River and lake. Only slightly more than half is spent on the lake, and 40% of that is not spent in pursuit of lake trout. When you include all the fishing money spent in other tributaries and lakes within the Flathead watershed, the value of the small mackinaw fishery pales in comparison. The Flathead Lake DEIS estimates that the loss to the two-county economy due to suppression would be less than 0.1% and that would likely be made up by increased river angling.

9) Columnists, a letter writer, and a recent editorial would scare you into believing that if you buy electricity from BPA you will pay for this plan. You have already paid that money. BPA sets aside mitigation funds every year for worthy projects. That money will be collected and spent regardless of whether or not it is spent on Flathead Lake. There will be no additional cost to rate payers.

10) FWP decries the estimated bycatch of bull trout resulting from netting in Flathead Lake. Bycatch is rightly a concern to be addressed and avoided, and the tribes are committed to this. The US Fish and Wildlife Service must approve and monitor the level of estimated bycatch before and during any netting on Flathead Lake. Accurate data from other regional waters where fish populations are being rebalanced by reducing lake trout show that reducing lake trout populations can be accomplished without adverse effect on native bull trout and cutthroat populations. FWP’s own data on Swan Lake has shown that bull trout can be avoided in the netting process.

“Belief” and speculation cannot take the place of thoughtful, rigorous science and sound economics in this important process to recover native fish in the Flathead. FWP needs to support this process and live up to their promises to recover native fish in the Flathead.

Learn more at http://www.flatheadtu.org/ 

CSKT response to the MFWP talking points: http://www.mackdays.com/DEIS/page75/ 

Read the DEIS at the CSKT website at http://www.flatheadlakeeis.net/ 

FVTU Comments on 2014 Regulation Changes

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Don Skaar

Fish Management Bureau Chief
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
P.O. Box 200701
Helena, MT 59601

Dear Don,

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on proposed Montana fishing regulation changes for 2014. Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited (FVTU) consists of more than 300 Montana anglers and conservation-minded individuals interested in the conservation, protection and restoration of coldwater fisheries in Northwest Montana and we are very interested in the regulation and preservation of our coldwater fisheries.

Regarding the proposal to change the definition of westslope cutthroat/rainbow hybrids in the North Fork of the Flathead River. We support the Department in its effort to better identify and manage our native state fish. Hybridization with invasive rainbow trout is a growing problem in the North and Middle Forks of the Flathead River and slowing the spread of the hybrid fish is an important strategy in conserving westslope cutthroat trout. We consider this a direct threat to the genetic integrity of the native fish population. We continue to support the ongoing rainbow/hybrid suppression effort on the Mainstem Flathead and important tributaries.

We can support changing the regulation regarding the identification of rainbow/cutthroat hybrids on a portion of the North Fork for a limited time as long as monitoring is performed rigorously and often. Creel census personnel should be well trained in identification and regular genetic sampling should be performed. Angler education is crucial and should be readily available. If data from the monitoring indicates that any damage is occurring to the native fish population, procedures should be in place to quickly remove the new regulation.

Little Bitterroot Lake-  FVTU also supports the removal of bag limits for smallmouth and largemouth bass in Little Bitterroot Lake to protect the important resident kokanee salmon population and to lessen the chance of the invasive fish spreading to other parts of the watershed.

With respect to regulation modifications not specified in the proposed changes for 2014, FVTU would also like to propose these other changes;

1) Within the Flathead River sloughs, it is still permissible for anglers to catch and keep up to 3 cutthroat trout with no size limit. Westslope cutthroat trout remain a “species of concern” in Montana and are rightly protected. Within the rest of the river system fishing for westslope cutthroat trout is catch-and-release due to threats to the species. As most of these sloughs are connected to the rest of the river system for, at least part of the year, and the cutthroat population is part of the larger overall basin population, we believe that the same regulations that protect our state fish in the rest of the system should apply to the sloughs. Therefore, we would like to see the regulation changed to catch-and-release for cutthroats in the sloughs as it is in the river.

2)  In the Stillwater drainage that includes the Whitefish River and Whitefish Lake it is still permissible for anglers to catch and keep westslope cutthroat.  With the completion of restoration of the Whitefish River from the Whitefish Lake outlet to the Highway 93 culverts, our members have been reporting increased catch of westslope cutthroat, some of which appear to be migratory from the Stillwater and Flathead Rivers downstream.  Therefore, we would like to see the regulation changed to catch-and-release for cutthroat in the Stillwater River drainage as it is in the Flathead River, to which the Stillwater system connects.

3) Lower Flathead River Sloughs-  We continue to advocate for removing protections for northern pike in the lower river and sloughs above Flathead Lake. These fish were illegally introduced many years ago and continue to take a heavy toll on our native fish as they move between the river system and Flathead Lake. We feel that the illegal pike population should not be protected as game fish through seasons and bag limits. We would like to see the removal of at least all bag limits on northern pike in the Flathead and seasonal restriction should be lifted where feasible.

4) Flathead River System-  Finally, FVTU continues to promote the imposition of single barbless hooks and no bait restrictions for the upper areas of the Flathead River system. We continue to see declines in our native bull trout and westslope trout populations even though fishing is limited and we feel that whatever can be done to alleviate hooking mortality within these populations would better support the ultimate goal of conserving and restoring our native fish populations.

Thank you for taking our comments.

Larry Timchak
President
Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited

Where is the outcry?

Lou Kis with a nice Flathead bull trout

Lou Kis with a nice Flathead bull trout

There seems to be more than a little agitation against the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes for seeking Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) mitigation funding to assist with their legitimate management of Flathead Lake and River fisheries. First of all, this is NOT federal tax money. The money comes from a permanent fund established by the Northwest Power Act of 1980 to protect, mitigate, and enhance fish and wildlife habitat affected by the 31 dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. The money comes from electric utilities that buy power from BPA. Montana and FWP regularly receive millions of dollars from this fund to mitigate damage caused by the development of Libby and Hungry Horse Dams.

BPA, through the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to restore and improve fish habitat, fund hatchery programs, etc. Some of that money is spent in Montana. This obligated money will be collected and spent based on a scientific review of proposed projects by an Independent Scientific Review Panel (ISRP). The panel makes recommendations on which projects are worthy of funding based simply on the science, not politics. This pot of rate-payer money will be spent based on the merit of proposed projects. Whether or not it is spent in Montana is up to the ISRP and BPA, not the federal government.

Montana FWP is currently restoring native fish habitat in the upper Coal Creek drainage in the North Fork  and has recently proposed obtaining a conservation easement on 189 acres at the north end of Flathead Lake to expand the North Shore Wildlife Management Area. Both programs would use mitigation funding obtained from BPA. I have heard no outcry regarding funding of either project.

I hear no objection to the State of Montana receiving and spending millions of dollars of BPA-funded mitigation money for worthy wildlife proposals, but when the Tribes apply for needed funds through the same program, a hue and cry arises that they are trying to steal our tax money to kill our fish and enrich themselves. To me, there seems to be just a smattering of sour grapes to these arguments and maybe just a twinge of xenophobia.

Remember When

flatheadcatch

A days catch on the Flathead not so long ago

Do you remember when you could fish for, and harvest large bull trout in the Flathead River? Remember when a 20-inch westslope cutthroat wasn’t a rarity? Most folks don’t, but it wasn’t all that long ago. In the 1970s and 1980s, river anglers harvested 6,000 to 7,000 bull trout annually and some of those ran over 20 pounds. Then came the lake trout explosion in Flathead Lake in the early 1990s costing us over 15 million kokanee salmon and beginning the path to elimination of native fish from our home waters.

We now have an opportunity to rectify some of the wrongs that have faced our native fish over the last few decades. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have drafted a science-based and sensible plan to reduce the bloated lake trout population in Flathead Lake, to re-balance our fishery and give our native trout some space to recover.

Please learn all you can by visiting our web page about the Draft EIS at: http://www.flatheadtu.org/FlatheadEIS.html. Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited supports the implementation of Alternative D in the EIS. Alternative D will increase the suppression of the lake trout population by only about 73,000 fish annually from a total population of 1.5 million fish. This is a reasonable, long-term action that will begin to bring balance back to the Flathead Lake fishery and will increase fishing opportunities in the River and its forks while having a minimal impact on fishing for Lake Trout.

Please help FVTU to accomplish this goal and to save our native fish populations before we begin to lose sub-populations and while there is still time to act. Send comments to lese@cskt.org in support of implementation of the DEIS. The Tribes will be accepting comments through August 5th. The native fish of the Flathead need your help today.

A Tale of Three Fish

HelpMessageOur local native trout, bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout, were doing just fine until lake trout populations exploded in Flathead Lake due to the misguided introduction of Mysis shrimp.  Large runs of adfluvial  cutts and bulls would head up river every spring to spawn.  Several years later the young return to the lake to grow and mature before beginning their own journey upstream. .   And the fishing was great!

I fish for enjoyment, relaxation and an occasional meal on the table.  So when I go fishing, I certainly don’t seek out controversy or conflict.   In a perfect world where the water is pure, the habitat is intact and healthy populations of native fish thrive, all is well.  However, we all know a perfect world does not exist. Populations of many of our native fish are in peril.  It’s never a lot of fun when you pit one trout or one type of trout fisher against another, but it has become inevitable in the case of lake trout in Flathead Lake.  That’s because there is irrefutable evidence that lake trout are the primary reason for the precipitous decline of bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout in the Flathead Lake and River system. 

Nice Bull Trout

Nice Bull Trout

Consider the status of these three fish.  The range of bull trout in the Columbia River system has been reduced by more than 50% over the years due to habitat loss, dams, competition from introduced fish, and angling pressure.  Native bull trout, once plentiful in the Flathead system, are now listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  As Flathead lake trout populations continued to expand in the 1990’s and 2000’s, the bull trout population declined by over 50%.  Lake trout expansion has all but wiped out bull trout populations in 10 of 13 lakes in Glacier National Park.  Opportunities to fish for bull trout are restricted to the point that you can’t even fish for them in the Middle Fork, North Fork and mainstem of the Flathead River. 

The situation for native westslope cutthroat trout is not quite as perilous as it is for bull trout, but they occupy only 59% of their historical range.  Westslope cutthroat are considered a sensitive species which means that if they continue to decline, they may be listed as threatened under the ESA.  Competition from introduced trout and loss of habitat have also contributed to their decline.  The large runs of adfluvial cutthroat trout from Flathead Lake decreased by up to 60% as the lake trout population exploded.  

Nonnative lake  trout on the other hand, are expanding their range and are in absolutely no danger of being listed under the Endangered Species Act.  Predatory lake trout reduced the Yellowstone Cutthroat population in Yellowstone Lake by over 90% with cascading effects across the ecosystem.  A multi-year netting program to reduce lake trout numbers is showing positive results.  Idaho Fish and Game is undertaking aggressive action to reduce lake trout in Lake Pend Oreille and initial results are encouraging.  (ironically the lake trout moved down the river to Idaho from Flathead Lake).   Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Forest Service, supported by the Flathead Chapter of Trout Unlimited, are currently engaged in lake trout suppression on Swan Lake. 

Angling opportunities have declined in Flathead Lake and the Flathead River due to the loss of the Kokanee and the decline in native trout numbers.  While you can’t even fish for bull trout in the Flathead River and all westslope cutthroat must be released, anglers can keep up to 100  lake trout in Flathead Lake.  Unfortunately the larger fish are not very good eat and may be hazardous to your health due to mercury and PCB accumulation.   Like most anglers, I enjoy catching a big fish but I struggle with the slot limit imposed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to favor development of trophy lake trout given our knowledge of their impact to our native trout.

I applaud the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes for their initiative in exploring options to reduce lake trout numbers in Flathead Lake.  It is a daunting task given the size of the lake, numbers of fish and the expected opposition from a constituency of anglers who enjoy, or depend upon lake trout fishing for their livelihood.  An important point to remember is that there will still be plenty of lake trout and lake trout fishing opportunities will continue  even with the most aggressive suppression alternatives.   Furthermore, this  program employs adaptive management- the impacts are not irreversible and methods will be adapted over time as more experience is gained and new technologies become  available. 

When a species is listed as threatened, I believe we have an obligation to attempt to restore that species so that it is no longer listed under the Endangered Species Act.  We have done that successfully with the bald eagle, whooping crane and black footed ferret and we can do it with bull trout.   Maintaining the status quo is a perilous course that could eventually lead to the listing bull trout as an endangered species. 

So what is the right thing to do?  Of course that depends upon your perspective.  From my perspective, the right thing to do is to protect and restore our Montana natives. 

Larry Timchak

President

Flathead Valley Chapter, Trout Unlimited