What the Trout Tell Us

By Beacon Staff

Amber Steed dragged her net around a metal cage resting in Cyclone Creek until she pulled up a small, wriggling, westslope cutthroat trout, then lowered it into a bucket. And though the fish was tiny, she was pleased with the catch.

For Steed, a fisheries biologist with Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, it’s another day at the office – her office being the various creeks and streams that drain into the North Fork of the Flathead River, where she checks on traps set up to learn more about native species like bull trout and westslope cutthroat.

Once the trout was anesthetized, Steed deftly made a number of measurements, then loaded a syringe and injected a transponder, or “pit” tag into the trout’s underbelly before placing it back into the bucket to recover from the hasty, involuntary surgery it had just undergone. The pit tag allows biologists to observe where the young trout spawns and spends its time later in life.

“We’re trying to look at as many different pieces of the picture as we can, as far as their life history,” Steed said. “If we detect a change, that could tell us whether something is going right or wrong with the population.”

Steed has conducted similar fieldwork in the North Fork’s headwaters above the Canadian border. And though her work on this particular day was unrelated to that research, it demonstrates how scientists from state and federal agencies, as well as the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station, are trying to learn as much as possible about current wildlife populations and water quality in the parts of the Flathead River basin near proposed coal-mining and coal-bed methane drilling operations.

The research of these scientists is likely to be heavily relied upon by members of a United Nations fact-finding mission arriving in the region some time in the next year to determine whether Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park should be designated a “World Heritage Site in Danger.” The unanimous June vote in Seville, Spain, by a 21-country panel of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) could mean widespread attention will once again be drawn to the issue of threats from mining and drilling operations in southeastern British Columbia along the headwaters of the North Fork, which serves as the western boundary of Glacier National Park.

“They’re definitely going to be entirely focused on the science,” Clint Muhlfeld, a research aquatic ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey based in Glacier Park, said of the UN mission. “We’re ready to go out in the field and disseminate all the scientific information that we can to them.”

Cobbling together funding from various sources over the last several years, regional scientists have been gathering evidence to make the case that the fish and wildlife inhabiting the headwaters of the Flathead are utterly unique. In addition to fish, some researchers are looking at the grizzly bear and wolverine populations. Other scientists are studying the effect on wildlife and water quality in the adjacent Elk Valley, where mining has been going on for decades. Still others are trying to determine what the economic consequences from the mining could be for the downstream communities, like the Flathead Valley.

But though the scientists have a good handle on what they want to communicate to the UN mission, at this early stage it’s hard to determine what the visiting team will actually need – not only from U.S. researchers, but from biologists and government agencies in Canada.

“We don’t know the exact nature of what they’ll come for,” Jack Potter, chief of the Division of Science and Resources Management for Glacier National Park, said. “This is kind of a mystery to all of us.”

Scientists and conservation groups have long argued that any mining operations in the headwaters of the North Fork would cause irrevocable harm to the wildlife and water quality of the entire Flathead Valley. Earlier this year, the American Rivers conservation group rated the North Fork the fifth-most endangered river in the U.S., and B.C.’s Outdoor Recreation Council put the North Fork at the top of a similar list.

The issue has diminished somewhat since British Petroleum announced last year it was dropping plans to conduct exploratory coal-bed methane drilling in the Canadian Flathead. In a recent interview, BP Canada’s vice president of coal-bed methane, Christopher Revington, emphasized the project is now limited to the Elk Valley, to the immediate west. As such, he declined to comment on whether the project would be affected at all by the findings of a UN mission.

“BP’s ‘Mist Mountain’ coal-bed methane project does not include areas within the Flathead Valley or the Flathead Watershed,” Revington said. “In our project area, which isn’t in the Flathead Valley, BP has been conducting extensive environmental studies.”

But the prospect of a mountaintop-removal coal mining operation above Foisey Creek, a tributary of the North Fork in B.C., remains. According to the Web site of the Cline Mining Corp., which is applying to develop the mine, its Lodgepole Coal Project “is proceeding subject to regulatory approval.” A call for comment last week to Cline’s Toronto office was not returned.

The issue was encapsulated for Steed last summer during the month she spent researching in the Canadian Flathead, where scientists have found abundant bull trout spawning sites in the tributaries of the North Fork.

“Any sort of deposits, like silt or basically mine tailings, would suffocate these eggs and kill them,” she said. “And because we found so many eggs below the mine area, it would have a direct effect on the system if that were to be wiped out.”

But when she looked up at the surrounding range, Steed said she could see coal deposits “bursting out of the sides of the ridges.”

In addition to the bull trout spawning areas, westslope cutthroat have inhabited these waters for 14,000 years, according to Muhlfeld: “The British Columbian portion of the Flathead contains the last remaining genetically pure populations of native westslope cutthroat trout.”

These findings directly contradict environmental assessments conducted by Cline, Muhlfeld added, which found no bull trout spawning areas, and high rates of hybridization between non-native rainbow trout and westslope cutthroat trout – an evaluation that places a lower value on the wildlife in the region.

These potentially conflicting reports will have to be evaluated by the team, which Potter said will be from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, under contract with UNESCO. That team will then make a recommendation as to the degree of environmental threat facing the Waterton-Glacier World Heritage Site in a report the UNESCO commission will examine at its annual June meeting, scheduled next year for Brazil. Any declaration by UNESCO that Waterton-Glacier is endangered doesn’t exert any authority over the Canadian or B.C. provincial governments; instead, it will likely increase public awareness and opposition to any natural resource development projects that could damage the Flathead basin.

Scientists believe such a ruling by UNESCO could also pressure Canada to permanently declare the regions above Waterton-Glacier off-limits to development. Provincial lawmakers in B.C. have expressed opposition to the establishment of a new park because it could reduce areas open to hunting and snowmobiling.

But a UNESCO ruling could be one more step toward a permanent solution to the decades-long controversy over mining north of Waterton-Glacier – since as long as the massive coalfields exist there, someone will always seek to extract it.

“Is a place threatened because of the potential for development or do you have to have the mine in place before there’s a threat?” Potter said. “The threat is not going to go away until the management plan changes.”