Fishing for Possibilities 

Nearly ten months after local environmental groups reached a settlement agreement with Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation on a lawsuit alleging years of air and water quality violations, money from that settlement may soon be flowing to help heal some of the damage inflicted on Montana's rivers and streams.

Smurfit-Stone Container has earmarked $50,000 of the settlement money for restoration of bull trout habitat in Western Montana. Local citizens' groups are hoping that the money will be used in the Missoula area for projects that will benefit the middle Clark Fork River and Rattlesnake Creek.

"We feel that we live in Missoula and Stone Container lives in Missoula, so this is where we'd like to see the money spent," says Larry Evans of CHEER, the Coalition for Health, Economic and Environmental Responsibility. The Missoula-based CHEER was one of several local environmental groups that were plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which also included Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Native Forest Network and the Western Environmental Law Center.

As of press time, several proposals, including one submitted by CHEER, were being considered in Helena by the Wild Fish Transfer Committee, an oversight body affiliated with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The committee, which meets only once or twice a year, must approve of any projects that involve the handling, shocking or transfer of wild fish. Such stringent oversight measures by aquatic biologists are necessary in order to check the spread of whirling disease, a parasite-borne disorder that affects the skeletal and nervous systems of various salmon and trout populations throughout the state.

Bull trout are the largest and rarest of Montana's native trout, a species that demands clear, cold water in order to survive. Although biologists have long been aware of declining bull trout populations, little has been done to reverse their decline until the last three or four years. Montana, which is home to more than half of all surviving bull trout populations, allowed the taking of bull trout until 1990, when catch-and-release rules were implemented. But in June 1998, the bull trout was listed as a threatened species, subject to federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The most cost effective and high profile proposal for improving local bull trout numbers, says Evans, would be to install a fish ladder on Rattlesnake Dam. The ladder would permit bull trout as well as other migratory fish species to swim upstream in Rattlesnake Creek and over the dam. If approved, this project would open up some 60 miles of upstream habitat, including prime gravel beds where bull trout prefer to spawn. Evans calls it one of the best watersheds for bull trout habitat in Western Montana.

He has sought the support of the Missoula City Council to endorse this proposal, saying that it would not only improve local bull trout habitat, but would also serve as a great opportunity for the Missoula community at large to get involved in and educated about watershed ecology issues.

Furthermore, this project appears to have no negative economic impact on local industries, agriculture or private property rights, but could greatly bolster the health of our native fisheries. Support for this project has been expressed by Mountain Water Company (which operates Rattlesnake Dam), FWP, some local landowners and aquatic biologists at the University of Montana.

In the past, much of the money set aside for bull trout habitat restoration in Western Montana has been spent on restoring the Blackfoot River. While the Blackfoot River's bull trout habitat has clearly suffered severe degradation as the result of mining, logging, grazing and agricultural operations, Evans says that the Missoula area has also been somewhat overlooked.

Other proposals for the $50,000 settlement money include plans to revegetate riparian areas and install more fish-friendly structures along Rattlesnake Creek, like wire fish screens to prevent bull trout from swimming into irrigation ditches and dying. Further biological sampling will also be needed to determine whether existing bull trout populations in Rattlesnake Creek carry whirling disease, or the Tubifex parasite that carries it. While whirling disease poses no health threat to humans, it poses a grave threat to Montana's cold-water fisheries, which represent more than $200 million a year in revenue.

It should also be noted that none of the settlement money allocated by Smurfit-Stone Container was awarded directly to the plaintiffs in this suit, so any project of this kind must first be approved by Smurfit-Stone management.

Although Evans admits that $50,000 will not be nearly enough money to accomplish all the goals he has outlined in their proposal (fish screens alone can run upward of $20,000) he hopes that this money will serve as "seed money" of sorts to induce other private and nonprofit organizations to make donations of their own to fund this important community project.

Still, the fate of the CHEER proposal remains an uncertainty in the Wild Fish Transfer Committee, governed by the often elusive and whimsical machinations of state wildlife managers. After all, it was a recently as 1990 when bounties were paid and streams were poisoned to eradicate the bull trout. It's an odd twist, considering that future fishermen may yet be able to catch bigger fish than we can today.

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