On a fishing trip on the South Fork of the Flathead River, I caught a small cutthroat trout on my fly line only to witness a large bull trout inhale the fish as I reeled the cutthroat to the boat.
You hear them all the time — fishing stories like these, of more anglers hooking more bull trout every year. They beg the question: If bull trout are being caught so readily in Northwest Montana, have they recovered enough to be taken off the endangered species list?
In 1998, under petition from several environmental groups, bull trout were listed as a threatened species. Yet, there is still no formal management plan for the recovery of the species. Bull trout seem to be a political football, tossed about among environmental groups, anglers, and the state or federal agencies that oversee them.
While portions of the upper Columbia River basin had struggling populations — and the Flathead River system was one of them — other populations in Northwest Montana were thriving, and still are today, biologists say.
Scott Rumsey, a biologist for the Montana Department Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Kalispell, said he would have preferred that bull trout be listed as specific populations, rather than taking a regional approach. This way they could be removed from the endangered species list when appropriate, or not listed at all.
“I think the blanket listing was a big mistake,” he said.
An animal, only a few centimeters long, has caused the bull trout decline in parts of the Flathead River system: an invertebrate called mysis shrimp.
State fisheries managers introduced these tiny creatures into Whitefish and Swan lakes between 1968 and 1975 as a food base for kokanee salmon. The mysis shrimp eventually drifted downriver into Flathead Lake. While similar mysis introductions worked well in British Columbia, in Flathead Lake the mysis beat-out the kokanee for the kokanee’s own food source — zooplankton. What was meant to help the kokanee eventually ruined the salmon population. Lake trout, meanwhile, began to thrive on the mysis, and with little room for large predators in Flathead Lake, the gregarious lake trout edged out bull trout.
Biologists now cringe at the mention of “mysis,” realizing the mistake their former colleagues once made.
“That’s how things were managed back then, by introductions of species,” Rumsey said.
In human life the timeline of history is tracked by two acronyms: B.C. and A.D. In Flathead River basin biology, there is “pre-mysis” and “post-mysis.” In post-mysis, kokanee salmon have nearly disappeared from Flathead Lake, but remain in places like Ashley Lake, Lake Mary Ronan, Middle Thompson Lake and Lake Koocanusa — where lake trout aren’t thriving.
Bull trout in the Flathead system reach adult size in Flathead Lake, then in four or five years return to their birth streams, tributaries of the Middle, South and North forks, to spawn. When those offspring reach the juvenile stage, they head downstream, and the cycle begins again.
While this cycle reflects the intricate web of nature and the lives of bull trout, politics muddies the waters.
State fisheries managers have their hands tied by the bull trout’s listing as a threatened species. The federal government dictates bull trout management, but it’s up to the state to actually do the work. As FWP research specialist Tom Weaver said, “Every time we want to go out there and touch one, we have to call (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) first, and get a letter from your mother.”
The federal government doesn’t fund bull trout management. The budget obligations fall on the shoulders of outdoor recreationists who buy Montana hunting and fishing licenses. Montana also receives federal money through taxes on fishing equipment, but the money is not specifically earmarked for bull trout recovery. (It will cost taxpayers roughly $17 million for the recovery, according to estimates from the Fish and Wildlife Service.)
Bull trout now thrive in parts of the Flathead River system and the Swan drainage. In 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowed limited sport fishing of bull trout in three Northwest Montana waters: Swan Lake, Lake Koocanusa and Hungry Horse Reservoir. Catch-and-release fishing for bull trout is now allowed in the South Fork of the Flathead.
Anglers can keep up to two bull trout per year, but they must register with Fish, Wildlife and Parks for a “catch card” to document where they caught the fish.
More than 2,700 anglers signed up in 2004, FWP reported.
Montana was the first to re-establish sport fishing of the bull among states where they are listed as threatened.
But while they’re thriving in certain parts of Northwest Montana, bull trout are tied to the endangered species listing that includes parts of Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Getting them off the list means all the populations must meet recovery goals.
After nearly 10 years there is no firm management policy in place — only a draft version.
Some wonder if the fish will ever be removed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates it could take up to 25 years before identified threats to the species can be significantly reduced, allowing bull trout eligibility for removal from the endangered species list.
Has listing of bull trout helped them? In some ways, yes, Rumsey said.
“Politically, (listing) helped get us some leverage that we might otherwise not have gotten,” he said, referring to how major landowners like the U.S. Forest Service and Plum Creek now had a whole set of new regulations to comply with regarding land management that could affect bull trout. “Beyond that, I’m not sure how much more the listing has helped.”
Some streams in the Swan drainage, like Elk, Goat and Squeezer creeks are at or near their 25-year highs for bull trout redd counts, while other redd counts in the Swan have been stable over the last 25 years of study, according to figures from Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
On the federal side of the bull trout management equation is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Mark Maskill, hatchery manager at the service’s Creston National Fish Hatchery near Kalispell, agrees that bull trout management has not been cohesive.
With much of bull trout management decided in the courts or by bureaucrats in places like Denver or Washington, D.C., Maskill said upper-level management of bull trout “creates obstacles to itself.”
The Creston Hatchery, downstream from Jessup Mill Pond, raises rainbow, cutthroat and bull trout.
The only hatchery in the United States with a captive bull trout population, Creston studies raising the bull in captivity and supplies eggs to out-of-state research requests, the demand for which has dwindled.
“We’ve reached the point where we need to move on … to the next point in bull trout restoration activities,” Maskill said. “We’re getting out of the brood stock business.”
Last year, Creston destroyed 600 of its bull trout. Those fish averaged 12-to-16 pounds, Maskill said.
While cutthroat and rainbow trout are routinely planted throughout Montana, bull trout are the one species that is self-supporting; no bull trout planting takes place in Montana. That’s good news for groups like the Friends of the Wild Swan, which Maskill said threatened court action in 1993 to stop planting of bull trout in the wild.
Duck Lake on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation will receive some of the bull trout that must be removed from Creston this year, within the guidelines of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), Maskill said. The predatory fish could help reduce the sucker population in the reservation’s lakes.
When those fish arrive at Duck Lake, they might encounter a man named Lou Kis, a longtime Kalispell resident who once enjoyed fishing for bull trout in the Flathead River.
Now retired, Kis, 80, was a longtime law-enforcement officer for Montana FWP. Back then, Kis would head to the Flathead River every spring to fish for bull trout with a stout rod and wooden lures. He found the big, fighting fish a keen opponent.
Kis is happy to find himself far from the politics of fisheries management but he remains, somehow, connected to the magical pull of a bull trout on a line.
“You’re on prime time when your rod is bent on a nice bull trout,” Kis said.