Flathead Fishing Would Never Be the Same

By Beacon Staff

As the treasurer of Montana Trout Unlimited, I write to express our organization’s serious concern regarding potential coal bed methane extraction and open pit coal mining at the headwaters of Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake.

Montana TU is a grassroots organization comprised of nearly 3,400 sportsmen and sportswomen who love to fish for native trout in our state’s clean, cold mountain waters. Recent years have been hard on our dwindling native fish. It is incumbent upon all Montanans to take proactive steps to ensure future generations have the same opportunities to enjoy our state’s legacy of great trout fishing.

Recent studies by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks verify that significant numbers of native trout in the Flathead River basin cross the border into Canada. Westslope cutthroat trout that live most of their lives in the United States spawn in British Columbia. As a result, industrial coal field development in the Canadian Flathead has the potential to significantly harm Flathead River trout populations.

We have known this for years. Nearly 20 years ago an international panel of scientists was assembled to review the first open pit coal mine proposed for the Canadian Flathead. They found that impacts to native fisheries posed a great risk to Montana. They recommended the mine not be approved. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped energy companies — with the support of British Columbia elected officials — from proposing new energy extraction.

A new proposal from British Petroleum is massive and potentially disastrous. BP wants to extract coal bed methane (CBM) from the roadless Canadian headwaters of the North Fork of the Flathead. The size of the operation could exceed 50,000 acres and involve construction of hundreds of miles of sediment-bleeding roads. Additionally, water quality will be threatened by the disposal of millions of gallons of toxic groundwater, the result of pumping that releases methane from underground coal seams.

Water quality in spawning habitats for native fish that reside in Montana will be threatened by the CBM discharges. British Columbia officials say the toxic water could be reinjected into the ground. But no one knows if this is even possible in the wet, mountainous Flathead country. If British Columbia’s track record in the neighboring Elk River holds true, BP will be allowed to discharge the water directly into small tributaries that are key habitats for native trout. For details, see for yourself at the Flathead Basin Commission Web site at www.flatheadbasincommision.org

BP’s proposal for CBM at the headwaters of the Flathead River system is bad for Montana. Governor Schweitzer and Montana’s congressional delegation must sit down with the elected leaders of British Columbia and develop a long-term plan for the Flathead River system that does not involve CBM or open pit coalmining. If we fail and development occurs, fishing the Flathead will never be same.