Trout Saviors 

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

A limp westslope cutthroat trout lies on a cutting board, a fish biologist stands over it sharpening two knives, and over the radio comes U2's Bono belting out "In The Name of Love."

The song doesn't register with the half-dozen Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) biologists who form a fish disassembly line here in a makeshift lab at the Washoe Park Trout Hatchery in Anaconda. It's the only hatchery in Montana that preserves genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout, classified by the state as a "species of concern" after decades of habitat loss and hybridization with rainbow and Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

On this May day, for only the second time in more than 25 years, the biologists kill wild male westslope cutthroat trout plucked from the South Fork of the Flathead drainage and extract their sperm in order to artificially inseminate hatchery eggs. The idea is to infuse the hatchery's brood stock with new, wild Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi genes. The infusion will improve the genetic integrity of the hatchery trout used to stock degraded fisheries in the same drainage where the genes originated. And so the fish sacrificed today will, paradoxically, help ensure the species' long-term survival.

photos by Cathrine L. Walters

The state biologists, led by hatchery manager Mark Sweeney, work in a garage, isolated from the hatchery's some 164,000 westslope cutthroats. Cutting boards, knives, forceps, test tubes and various containers cover a long white table, and the biologists, resembling chefs behind a sushi bar, slice and dissect.

Outside, a truck sits idle. Minutes earlier it arrived with about 120 of these young, male westslope cutthroats from the Flathead's Sekokini Springs Isolation Facility, where the fish had lived since they were taken last fall from Knieff and Paint creeks, tributaries of the South Fork of the Flathead. In all, fish genes from about 15 South Fork tributaries will be taken over the course of the three-year infusion.

"It's all an effort to restore pure westslope cutthroat to the South Fork, and for statewide purposes," explains FWP Fish Health Coordinator Ken Staigmiller as he waits for another fish, turned belly-up by a lethal dose of anesthetic just moments before, to arrive at his fish-cutting station.

The biologists often use the words "pure" and "wild" to explain their work. The words seem out of place, considering there's nothing wild about the artificial insemination. The same has been said of FWP's larger restoration effort, known as the Westslope Cutthroat Trout Conservation Project, which involves poisoning lakes to kill hybrid trout and replacing them with "wild" fish from the Washoe Park hatchery. This level of human intervention is required, the state decided, to save the species. Some doubt the agency's motives are as pure as the cutthroat genes it's working to preserve. But, in any case, the project serves as an example of how convoluted native fish conservation has become in Montana.

Staigmiller receives the next fish, lays it out on the cutting board, and slices off its head. He puts the head in a small plastic baggie with the handful of others.


University of Montana and FWP Geneticist Robb Leary determined in 2007 that the agency needed to infuse new genes into the Washoe hatchery brood stock.

"We were seeing a few more slight developmental abnormalities in the fish"—like changes in fin morphology—"than we did when they were originally established," explains Leary, who has inspected the brood stock since its first generation arrived in 1983 and 1984.

"But the main thing," he continues, "was that these fish have been held in isolation ever since then, and when you keep a population in isolation, you're always going to build up some level of inbreeding. Another thing is the population starts to adapt to the hatchery environment. And so that was really the impetus behind it. It's like a rancher deciding it's time for fresh blood."

FWP biologists go to great lengths to ensure that the fresh blood is free of disease. After Staigmiller opens a fish he cuts out its kidneys and spleen and drops them into a small glass test tube.

"We're not looking for any bacteria," Staigmiller says. "We're looking for certain bacteria—certain bacteria and viruses that we know are problematic. There are three bacteria, three viruses and one parasite that we basically have to certify this stock is free of before we can move on."

The parasite is Myxobolus cerebralis, which induces whirling disease. The disease leads to skeletal deformation and neurological damage that causes fish to swim in an uncontrolled whirling motion. Staigmiller's plastic bags of fish heads are headed to a lab in Bozeman to be tested for the parasite. Scientists grind up the heads, put them in a centrifuge and add enzymes, which free up any whirling disease spores occupying the fish cartilage.

"This is such a valuable brood stock—it's captive and we've invested a lot of years and money into it—and so we're very protective of it, very concerned about bringing anything into the hatchery that's going to be incorporated into this brood stock," Staigmiller says.

After all, FWP biologists have high hopes for the hatchery's fish. Most of them will ultimately end up somewhere in the South Fork of the Flathead drainage as part of the Westslope Cutthroat Trout Conservation Project. The agency is entering the fourth year of the 10-year effort to restore native westslope cutthroat trout to the drainage, an area that accounts for about half of the 10 percent that remains of the species' historic range.

The project has proven contentious ever since it was originally proposed about a decade ago. Few dispute the importance of preserving westslope cutthroat, the state fish, but they do question how much the project sacrifices in order do so.

In 2007, after four years of environmental review, FWP began applying a toxicant called rotenone to remote mountain lakes in the South Fork drainage to kill all of the nonnative hybrid fish that thrive there.

"At that time," recalls FWP Fisheries Mitigation Coordinator Joel Tohtz, "there was a lot of concern—legitimate concern from everybody, including internally on our staffs—about what we were doing, and all of things you have to watch out for, the pre-work that goes into this, all the monitoring of levels of toxicants and making sure they're doing what you think they are."

The nonnative fish were largely introduced into the lakes—many of which were historically fishless—by the government and the public between the 1920s and 1960s. Even before the '20s, says FWP Regional Fisheries Manager Jim Vashro, people were "amazingly determined" to stock these lakes with fish.

photos by Cathrine L. Walters

"I read one report on stocking Lake Mary Ronan," says Vashro, "and the fish came in on the train and it took them three days by wagon—this was in the 1880s—to get the fish up and planted."

All of the lakes lie above the Hungry Horse Reservoir, which separates the South Fork drainage from the rest of the Flathead River system. The reservoir, and the Hungry Horse Dam that created it, are central to the restoration effort, partly because it means that the Bonneville Power Administration, charged with mitigating the effects of northwest hydropower facilities on fisheries thanks to the Northwest Power Act of 1980, is paying for it. Last year the dam's mitigation budget was about $1.8 million, about $500,000 of which went toward poisoning lakes in the South Fork to make way for the wild cutthroats. The entire 10-year Westslope Cutthroat Trout Conservation Project is expected to cost more than $2 million.

FWP began the project in 2007 by treating Black and Blackfoot lakes. It treated Lower Big Hawk Lake in 2008, and Clayton and Margaret lakes in 2009. All are on Flathead National Forest land east of the Hungry Horse Reservoir and south of Glacier National Park. The remaining 16 lakes are scheduled to be poisoned in the coming years.

The project still makes some fishermen scratch their heads. They were used to catching big, beautiful rainbows and Yellowstone cutthroats, and never seemed to mind that those species weren't there—nor any other fish species—100 years ago.


After Staigmiller removes a fish's head, spleen and kidneys, he passes the rest of the body on to fellow Fish Health Specialist Marc Terrazas. With his tiny forceps, Terrazas carefully pulls out the fish's testes, which look like a gooey white string. He jokes about its resemblance to an earthworm.

Terrazas then passes the testes to another biologist, Mark Kornick of the Flathead Lake Salmon Hatchery, who blots blood off the testes with a paper towel. Kornick then dices the testes into a milky mush.

Meanwhile, a few hundred feet away at the covered end of a fish hatchery raceway, three more FWP biologists, wearing waders and rubber gloves, stand in the water next to a tub of motionless cutthroats. They're anesthetized four-year-old females from the hatchery's brood stock, and the biologists pick them up out of the water one by one and squeeze and massage the fish's sides, and out squirts a stream of florescent orange eggs into a stainless steel bowl. FWP Fish Culturist Paul Suek explains that each fish yields, on average, about 1,100 eggs.

Plastic containers of freshly squeezed fish eggs are taken back to the garage, where they await their union with the mush of invisibly teeming sperm.


FWP held its annual informational meeting on the Westslope Cutthroat Conservation Project in late May at its office in Kalispell. With the rotenone treatment of Wildcat Lake scheduled for the fall, opponents of the plan were expected to show up. But none did. Agency staffers outnumbered members of the public, who barely outnumbered the two journalists in attendance.

"I think this meeting is a good sign," Vashro said. "This has been a contentious project. I mean, taking chemicals into the Bob Marshall Wilderness is no small issue, and it took four years just to get through the environmental reviews, and some of those earlier meetings were well attended and very passionate. And so I think this is an indication that the work Matt and his crew are doing is dealing with a lot of those concerns and moving ahead."

Vashro was referring to Matt Boyer, the project's lead biologist who had just completed a presentation on its progress. He detailed how the agency monitors the success of rotenone treatments.

"We're not just thinking about restoring fisheries, but also about the things that sustain these fisheries, and that's down to the plankton, the insects and amphibians," Boyer said. "So when we're managing for the persistence of native westslope cutthroat trout, we're trying to think long-term, trying to keep intact the ecosystems and evolutionary processes that allow these things to exist."

FWP calculates the volume of the lake in order to apply the correct amount of rotenone needed to achieve a concentration of one part per million. "We're lucky that trout are pretty wimpy to this stuff," Boyer said. Then the agency flies an air tanker—the same kind used for crop dusting or dropping fire retardant—or uses a boat to apply the chemical. It also sets up "drip stations" to access lake tributaries. The agency treats the entire fishery up to a barrier waterfall.

Amphibians—including the Columbia spotted frog, western toad, long-toed salamander and tailed frog—largely avoid the rotenone, Boyer said, because they're typically in their terrestrial stage in the fall when the piscicide is applied. But invertebrate numbers dip.

Boyer displayed a slide showing the number of invertebrate taxa—insects like mayflies, midges and beetles—in Black and Blackfoot lakes before and after treatment. In Black Lake in 2007, before treatment, biologists counted 27 taxa. After treatment, in 2008, the number dropped to 19. But they had rebounded by last year when biologists counted 23. Blackfoot Lake saw a similar dip, but the number of taxa found last year, 36, actually exceeded the pre-treatment count of 34. Boyer said it takes a few months, roughly, depending on the size of the lake, for the rotenone to break down and become non-detectable.

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."

Vashro says the species listing would affect timber sales, road construction, mining and the licensing of federal dams, among other things.

"And from a state standpoint," he says, "we have to be very conservative about managing not just the listed species but any other species that might impact it. So that in turn has an impact on fish stocking, and fishing regulations, and the kind of species that we might manage for. There aren't many facets of our life that it doesn't touch in some way."

Ironically, the 564-feet-high Hungry Horse Dam—the drainage's most obvious example of why, as Workman puts it, we can't undo how we've changed the ecosystem—makes the entire project possible.

photos by Cathrine L. Walters

"The Hungry Horse Dam," explains Bruce Farling, director of Montana Trout Unlimited, "has been a 100-percent effective barrier from introduced species that we don't want in the South Fork system getting into the South Fork system."


In other words, the manmade dam ensures that the genetically pure trout that grow from the artificially inseminated eggs and stocked into the previously poisoned (and historically fishless) mountain lakes aren't hybridized by the descendents of the trout the state introduced in the drainage decades ago.

But, as Farling points out, "It's not being done in the name of wildness, it's largely being done in the name of cutthroat conservation."

The bottom line, he says, is that the project has been successful so far. The rotenone has worked. And fish that, for the most part, evolved over millennia in the Flathead system are still swimming there.

Wildness, though, may be what brings back the voices of opposition to the Westslope Cutthroat Conservation Project. All of the lakes that have been treated so far, and the lake on schedule to be treated this fall, are on Flathead National Forest land. But 11 of the 21 lakes on the list—Pyramid, George, Woodward, Lena, Lick, Koessler, Sunburst and the four in the Necklace chain—are inside the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and beginning next year with the Necklace lakes, they'll be treated with rotenone.

"There's going to be a little more scrutiny," says Vashro.

He says the non-wilderness lakes are being treated first to "fine tune" the process.

But treating wilderness lakes with chemicals has been done before, even in the South Fork. In the '90s rotenone was used to kill invasive brook trout.

"And so we've established precedent of the process and the chemical use," Vashro says. "But we have to go through a lot more steps as we move into wilderness to get that administrative approval."

The wilderness lakes were included in an environmental impact statement (EIS) completed in 2006.

Farling expresses concern about temporarily letting chemicals and possibly motorboats into wilderness, where even mountain bikes are prohibited. But he says circumstances surrounding native fish have become so dire that compromises must be made.

"This temporary impact—actually an aesthetic impact—is going to be worth it," Farling says, "in terms of the return we'll get for maintaining that important genetic reservoir of those ancestral lineage cutthroats in the Bob Marshall Wilderness...

"Some people have problems with that," he continues, "and I kind of do, too. But I'm looking at the trade-offs here. One thing about wilderness is it's a reservoir for native species and for ancestral strains of those species, be it an elk, be it a bighorn sheep, be it a cutthroat trout. That's one of the highest values of wilderness."

FWP still needs to complete a "minimum tools analysis" for the rotenone treatments of each wilderness lake. The process determines whether it's most appropriate to access the lakes using, say, a helicopter or pack stock. The forest supervisor then decides if the tools to be used warrant further public comment.

In the makeshift lab at the Washoe Park Trout Hatchery, Mark Sweeney combines some of the containers of inseminated eggs dyed with iodine and gives them to Angela Smith, a FWP fish culturalist. Smith takes them inside the hatchery's main building, which houses several rows of long, aqua-blue troughs. The troughs in the main room are empty. But two smaller rooms contain large glass cylinders full of glowing orange eggs. One of the rooms holds about 275,000.

Smith pours the new eggs into a glass cylinder. She then attaches a hose that supplies a constant flow of fresh, 56-degree water. It brings oxygen and removes waste, and makes the cylinder constantly overflow. The iodine color begins to fade away.

It will take two weeks or so, Smith says, until the eggs "eye up," the stage at which dark dots become visible inside the egg. Another few weeks after that, the fish will actually hatch. They'll do so right inside the cylinder, Smith says, and swim up over the lip of the cylinder and into a tank.

And eventually, some of these wild fish, after this strange evolutionary interlude, will return to the wilderness.

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