Fish Restoration Project Survives Scrutiny

By Beacon Staff

After several hours of public comment, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission denied a motion that would have suspended the use of a toxin in a westslope cutthroat restoration project in the South Fork Flathead Basin.

The commission meeting was scheduled to be a status update on the agency’s Westslope Cutthroat Trout Conservation Program – a plan to wipe out hybridized fish by treating 21 mountain lakes in Flathead’s South Fork watershed over the next 10 years with a toxin called Rotenone. The basis of the program itself, however, was scrutinized when Commissioner Vic Workman of Whitefish proposed the use of Rotenone be suspended indefinitely.

Workman questioned whether the amount of sampling in Hungry Horse Reservoir was statistically valid before making his motion, saying he wasn’t willing to be part of a project that “didn’t have a chance to succeed” and could have “unknown, detrimental effects.” But when a second was needed to bring Workman’s motion to vote, none of the other commissioners supported his effort. During the commission’s January meeting, Workman had made a similar proposal to suspend lake poisoning in Western Montana, but his motion was defeated 3-2.

The FWP project is meant to protect the native westslope cutthroat population in the South Fork drainage by reducing hybridization between the cutthroat and other nonnative trout. About half of the state’s remaining westslope cutthroat – Montana’s state fish – are in the South Fork.

“As far as conservation goes, we’re going to get the best bang for the buck in the South Fork,” FWP biologist Matt Boyer said. “But if that population is compromised, it would put the cutthroat in the most jeopardy.”

At last week’s meeting at Kalispell’s Red Lion Inn, FWP officials explained that non-native fish breed with native westslope cutthroats to create hybrids. Hybrids, FWP officials say, water down the gene pool, can reproduce faster than westslopes and could completely wipe out westslope populations. The Rotenone treatments kill all fish in the targeted areas and then FWP biologists restock genetically pure hatchery westslopes.

Treatments began this past fall with the Black and Blackfoot lakes in the Jewel Basin. Boyer said no fish were observed in the lakes this spring, meaning the agency was successful in achieving a complete kill. The Rotenone on both lakes has detoxified and certain species have already begun to rejuvenate, he added.

This week, FWP planned to re-stock the lakes by helicopter with a genetically pure strain of westslope cutthroat trout from a fish hatchery in Anaconda.

Public comment at last week’s meeting was divided on the issue. About a dozen people spoke in favor of the project, arguing primarily that it was a proactive step to keep the fish off the Endangered Species List. Most of the proponents represented organizations, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes, the U.S. Forest Service, Bonneville Power Administration, Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited and the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority.

Local citizens, however, lined up on the other side of the issue, questioning whether Rotenone would have negative effects on fish downstream, other animals or humans. Several of them cited a study that showed Rotenone caused Parkinson’s symptoms in rats.

Opponents also echoed Workman’s concern that the project would ultimately prove unsuccessful when area citizens engaged in “bucket biology” and reintroduced nonnative species. Swamping, where purebred fish are added to the existing population, was safer, they argued.

Boyer said swamping is still being considered for at least four of the project’s targeted lakes, but he added that while swamping improves the situation, it often doesn’t eradicate the problem.

While the project will still continue as planned, Jim Satterfield, regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Kalispell, stressed that there will be annual public meetings and a comprehensive five-year review.

Big Hawk Lake in the Jewel Basin is scheduled for Rotenone treatment this fall.