YELLOW BAY — It’s a blustery afternoon at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, but the chill in the air isn’t just from the breeze coming off the water.
Five men are involved in a lively and pointed debate over the future of the fishery here. It’s clear that they’ve had this discussion among themselves before, and on this cool June day no one is making any headway in winning the argument.
The debate boils down to two fish species, some nearly microscopic shrimp and unintended consequences. But it’s also about an ongoing philosophical dilemma over native species vs. introduced species, as well as when to concede defeat and when to continue fighting.
Bull trout, which were listed as a threatened species in 1998, are native to Flathead Lake. Lake trout were introduced here in 1905 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which was trying to lure more people to the area.
The trout co-existed well until the introduction of mysis shrimp in 1968, which were put in three creeks that feed Flathead Lake to help out the collapsing kokanee fishery. By 1981, the shrimp had entered the Flathead Lake food chain.
Today, the kokanee are gone, the shrimp are thriving, an estimated 1.6 million lake trout swim in Flathead and only about 4,000 bull trout remain. What prompted the change involved an aquatic lifestyle — shrimp go to the bottom of the lake during the day, which is where young lake trout live and feed off them. Bull trout stay higher, so mysis shrimp aren’t an integral part of their diet. Lake trout also reproduce faster than bull trout.
Making plans and taking sides
A co-management plan for Flathead Lake and its tributaries was written in 2000 as a joint effort by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), which handles the fishery on the south half of the lake on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which manages the north end.
The plan, which focused on balancing native fish and providing a viable recreational fishery, expired in 2010. That prompted the creation of a new Draft Environmental Impact Statement, released June 21.
Creating that draft drove a wedge between FWP and others involved in fisheries management, which is why Barry Hansen with the CSKT, Clint Muhlfeld with the U.S. Geologic Service and Wade Fredenberg with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are squaring off against Jim Vashro and Mark Deleray with FWP on the lake’s shore.
The federal agencies and the tribes say the DEIS is the best way to move forward. They believe that without the removal of large quantities of lake trout, the bull trout eventually could die off here.
Like the other four men here, Fredenberg is passionate about the fishery. To him, the number one threat to obtaining bull trout restoration in Flathead Lake is the lake trout.
“The landscape is fully capable of supporting the bull trout and furthermore, we have spent millions or hundreds of millions protecting the landscape, Glacier Park and the ecosystem,” Fredenberg says, throwing his arms wide open toward the lake. “Yet we are not supporting the fish that belongs here.
“… There is no biological conclusion you can reach that says you can have 1.6 million lake trout in Flathead Lake and still recover bull trout. We believe more of a balance can be achieved.”
Creating that balance could include more fishing contests, bounties and removing 25 to 75 percent of the lake trout — between 84,000 to 143,000 each year, for up to 50 years — using a variety of methods, including gillnetting, according to the DEIS.
FWP argues that significantly dropping lake trout numbers will make for an unviable fishery. In addition, FWP theorizes that without lake trout to eat the shrimp, their numbers will increase, and they’ll prey more heavily on zooplankton populations, which could result in higher algae levels and more algae blooms.
“The lake trout are a symptom. The real problem is mysis shrimp. They have changed the ecology and no one seems to understand that,” says Vashro.
Yet they can’t remove the shrimp. There’s too many of them and Flathead Lake is just too big.
So can the tribes undertake the aggressive lake trout removal if its partner objects?
FWP notes in a question-and-answer document that whether or not the tribes have the authority to gillnet the north half of the lake “is a legal question that is unresolved at this time.”
Security vs. recovery
Vashro believes the lake trout population is dropping already, after a “big pulse” of lake trout between 1988 and 1992. He warns that because of the ongoing effort to remove lake trout — about 50,000 are harvested during the Mack Days tournament and anglers annually take about 20,000 more — that the trophy fishery for them on Flathead Lake could collapse. He said that already angler success is lower in recent years than it has been in the past.
He also cautions that previous attempts at experimental gillnetting in recent years met with public opposition, and gill nets also bring up nontargeted fish — like bull trout.
FWP officials say that while that it’s important to protect and enhance the native fish population, the state agency also is in favor of maintaining a viable recreational fishery for the anglers whose license fees help keep FWP afloat. Those anglers, who come from all over the world, also are an economic boon to fishing guides, restaurants, hotels and other area businesses.
And FWP doesn’t agree that the bull trout population here is in trouble. FWP contends that female bull trout are spawning in all historically used streams and that they meet “secure” levels agreed upon in that 2000 document. Vashro also argues that the state and tribes decided upon certain trigger points for bull trout and if spawning dropped below those points, they would agree the population was in peril and certain measures would be instituted.
“But bull trout are 60 percent above the secure levels,” Vashro said. “So as the tribe moved into their EIS we just started moving further and further apart. We just can’t agree on the purpose and need for those aggressive steps and removed ourselves from the process.”
Fredenberg counters that FWP’s data on bull trout spawning was called “garbage” by peer reviewers, and he still has no faith in it.
“I think it still is garbage and means nothing to us in the realm of what we consider (to be) the recovery of bull trout,” he said. “You guys diverged 10 years later on what these numbers meant. They may be on ‘secure’ levels but far from what we think is recovered.”
Hansen adds that just stabilizing the population wasn’t ever the objective; the point was to increase bull trout numbers to historic levels, and that hasn’t happened.
“We haven’t increased the native fish and we have not decreased the lake trout,” Hansen said. He’s also concerned that a similar situation will occur in Swan, Holland and Lindberg lakes.
As the men bicker about the difference over what’s considered “secure” levels and a recovered bull trout population, it becomes clear that they’re not going to agree on much when it comes to the two trout species.
“We disagree and we don’t talk anymore,” Hansen said, shaking his head. “Our relationship has gotten that bad, and that’s where some of this emotion comes from.”
“We are just treading water and not getting much done,” Fredenberg adds.
Vashro doesn’t agree with that either.
“We are moving forward with habitat protection, education, monitoring, access and water quality,” Vashro said. “We are doing well with those. It’s just that we have problems with their fish management.”
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Eve on Twitter #IR_EveByron.