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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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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