The great Flathead fish fiasco 

State and tribes disagree over how to handle invasive lake trout

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Untangling Flathead Lake’s complex history of biological winners and losers is one thing. Fixing it is another, in part because the politics is as snarled as the ecology.

Two groups manage fisheries in the lake: Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks oversees the lake’s northern half; the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Fisheries Program, the southern half. The Flathead watershed supports a $20 million fishery that both profit from, but the bull trout’s decline, along with the federal government’s determination to save it, has fractured a once-collaborative relationship. Both sides readily acknowledge this issue.

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  • Cathrine L. Walters

“It’s a battle over public sentiment,” says tribal biologist Barry Hansen, “and over who’s controlling the facts.”

“The nature of the situation at present is that we don’t talk,” says state biologist Mark Deleray.

The relationship wasn’t always like this. In 2000, the state and the tribes wrote a co-management recovery plan, which aimed to increase bull trout populations above “secure levels,” so the species would no longer be at high risk of extinction. The plan originally deemed bull trout secure if there were 300 redds—or the hollow a female fish scours out of a riverbed to lay her eggs in—among the Flathead watershed’s 31 spawning tributaries.

In the most recent survey, biologists counted 500 redds. The state believes that means bull trout are doing well enough to avoid drastic recovery measures. Tribal and federal biologists disagree. They argue that when the plan was written no one fully understood the complex biology, and so the definition of “secure” was arbitrary.

“It’s worthless,” says Hansen. “The parties were feeling politically pressured to come up with a number.”

As University of Montana biologist Fred Allendorf observed when the plan was released, the distribution of redds is as important as their numbers: A concentration of 500 redds in only one or two tributaries, or even an equitable distribution of them across many tributaries, could leave the species vulnerable to random events, such as mudslides or winter floods.

The most recent counts from 2012 bear out such concerns. In the Middle and North Forks of the Flathead River, biologists found that 55 percent of the tributaries supported 10 or fewer spawning bull trout females. Meanwhile, lake trout have invaded nine of 12 interconnected lakes between Flathead and Glacier National Park; in eight of them, bull trout are functionally extinct.

But you can’t bring back the bull trout without removing oodles of lake trout. Anglers now catch 70,000 or so each year, about 50,000 of those during semiannual fishing derbies called Mack Days (with a $10,000 first prize). But all that effort has yet to help bull trout. One reason might be that, since 1994, the state has prohibited anglers from keeping lake trout between 30 and 36 inches long, and allowed them to keep only one fish over 36 inches. Tribal biologists say this lets the largest and most voracious lake trout persist. That’s good for sport fishers, who are allowed to catch up to 100 lake trout per day, including the occasional behemoth, but bad for bull trout.

It is here that the state’s dual mandates—protecting a threatened native fish, and sustaining a multimillion-dollar recreational fishery built around that native fish’s bête noire—collide. Bonnie Ellis, a biologist at UM’s Flathead Lake Biological Station, says, “If (Fish, Wildlife and Parks) wants to protect the largest lake trout in the lake, while at the same time reduce the population, then those two aims are not very compatible.”

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