Trout Saviors 

Artificial insemination. Poisoned lakes. Decapitated cutthroats. It's all part of a paradoxical plan to save the state fish.

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The FWP staffers at the meeting lauded the project as a success so far. "But that work's not done," said Tohtz. "That diligence continues and part of why we have this meeting every year is to remind everybody that the promises made, we're keeping them."

Vic Workman, for one, says that's impossible. The former FWP commissioner from Whitefish describes himself as the project's biggest critic.

"It was a Band-Aid on a situation that can never be perfect," he says a few days after the meeting. "And to those who would love to see it be perfect and us undo what we've done in nature: It cannot happen."

photos by Cathrine L. Walters

Workman's biggest complaint, he says, is that the agency doesn't know the extent to which the Hungry Horse Reservoir contains hybridized trout, which could threaten the genetic integrity of the pure westslope cutthroats stocked in the lakes above it.

(FWP acknowledges that its data isn't exact, but says if it can cut off the sources of hybrids—the mountain lakes—it can reverse the problem in the entire drainage.)

But more than that, Workman claims FWP is driven by ulterior motives. He says the project has roots in former Gov. Marc Racicot's concern that dwindling cutthroat numbers could have far-reaching economic implications.

"A lot of people think this is about the fish," Workman says. "This all started with the Racicot administration trying to hold off the Endangered Species Act from being enacted [by adding the westslope cutthroat to the endangered species list] and thus stopping or curbing mining or logging. It has to do with mining and logging, not fish, ultimately."

The westslope cutthroat has been petitioned for listing four times since 1997. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has said that aggressive projects like Montana's Westslope Cutthroat Conservation Project, by attempting to protect about half of the remaining wild population, make the species' listing unwarranted.

Still, Workman believes the restoration project will ultimately prove futile.

"So," he says, "not only are we destroying fisheries—fabulous fisheries—with no assurance that the one goal of restoration will happen, but we're probably not going to stop the listing."

••••

After Kornick dices the testes, he takes his knife and scrapes the milky mush into a plastic container of fish eggs—the same eggs just recently squeezed from knocked-out trout. Hatchery manager Mark Sweeney squirts in a few ounces of cold water, and insemination ensues.

Sweeney explains that the water activates the sperm, stimulating a rush of activity, lasting no longer than a minute, during which the millions of sperm frantically search for an egg's opening, called a micropyle. The micropyle closes immediately after a sperm enters.

"They just swim like crazy looking for the party," Sweeney says. "If there's no party, they'll all just kind of get lonely and hang out and die."

Sweeney adds a couple dashes of iodine to the milk-soaked eggs, a precautionary measure should any of the eggs contain viruses or bacteria. He then sets the mixture aside.

With the insemination complete, Kornick quips: "What I can't believe is that fish can do this without us interfering."

••••

"The largest part of why we're doing all of this," Vashro says, "is that cutthroat are part of our natural heritage, and it's our state fish. So taking care of our natural heritage is primarily what is driving us. Being the state fish, they're a real symbol of Montana in terms of cold, clean water and good habitat. And to some extent, those native fish are a canary in the goldmine. They're telling us whether we're doing our job.

"That said," he continues, "we think avoiding Endangered Species Act listing is a positive thing. It gives us a little more flexibility and lets the state stay in control of managing that fish."

It's a positive thing for the Bonneville Power Administration, too. FWP Hydropower Mitigation Coordinator Brian Marotz explains that the federal agency can save ratepayers money by preventing a fish from being listed.

"It just makes business sense to not let cutthroat get in such a bad way that they are required to be listed," Marotz says, "because then it becomes much more costly to restore a species compared to just perpetuating that species. So it's a good business model. It's cheaper to help them now than to recover them if they're going to wink out."

FWP and BPA already have to manage for one endangered fish in Montana—the bull trout. But the listing of cutthroats would bring even greater challenges because it's more prevalent in the state.

"I think it would just open a lot of dialogue if an animal that was as widespread in our area as the cutthroat trout were to be listed...," says Tohtz. "It wouldn't be insignificant, the change in how we do business in the local areas, if the animal was listed...You'd have to be more careful than ever."

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