A local angler contacted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks several weeks back with a troubling story. While fishing on Seeley Lake, the individual caught at least one smallmouth bass, a predatory fish foreign to the Clearwater drainage. The report led officials to a simple and increasingly common conclusion: Someone illegally introduced a non-native species to a popular Montana waterway.
FWP was unable to track down a second angler rumored to have reeled in smallies, says Region 2 Fisheries Manager Pat Saffel. But the primary question the agency now faces is exactly how bad the situation is at Seeley Lake.
"This time of year, they start moving to wintering grounds and they can be kind of hard to access when you sample," Saffel says. "We're thinking we may not be able to answer that question very well until next spring or summer."
Illegal introductions are nothing new in Montana. According to FWP, northern pike alone have spread to or been illegally released in more than 50 bodies of water since 1953, including the Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Clearwater drainages. Pike have contributed to the decline of bull trout in numerous waterways.
Smallies are particularly adept at navigating river systems, and their sudden appearance in Seeley Lake could tip the natural balance even further for native trout downstream.
"I really don't see it being very long before you see smallmouth bass in lots and lots of different places unless we can really get a handle on what's hopefully an isolated population right now," says Mark Aagenes, conservation director for Montana Trout Unlimited. "The opportunity to impact a really important local fishery is incredible with this."
Aagenes adds that smallies could even "wash down to the Blackfoot" if a population is given the chance to establish itself.
MTU and other conservation nonprofits have dedicated considerable resources to restoring bull trout and westslope cutthroat in the Blackfoot and Clearwater. FWP has worked to modify a fish barrier to accommodate bull trout passage into the West Fork of the Clearwater, and spent roughly $18 million acquiring the Marshall Creek Wildlife Management Area partly to preserve critical bull trout habitat.
The agency is now offering a $1,000 reward for tips leading to a conviction in the Seeley Lake case. Aagenes says MTU is currently discussing ways to help bolster FWP's investigation. Saffel says a conviction may not be a realistic end, but even if the guilty party is caught, "you're still stuck with the problem."