Flathead Gill Netting Debate Continues

By Beacon Staff

We support biologically sound management of outdoor natural resources, which include hunting and fishing on an optimum yield basis. We support the conservation of natural resources for future generations. We strongly oppose those who would take away our outdoor recreational heritage, whether by gun control, privatization of public lands or wildlife, destruction of wildlife habitat, pollution, stream degradation or any other unwise use of our natural resources.

Flathead Wildlife, Inc., recently invited several key members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to an open meeting to discuss the issues that face us, specifically in regard to the recent CSKT pilot project to aggressively increase the harvest of lake trout in Flathead Lake. There will be another meeting Tuesday, April 13, at 7 p.m. at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell, hosted by the CSKT and Montana FWP.

There has obviously been a great buzz as of late regarding this issue, with many citizens writing letters to the editors of several local newspapers, as well as letters to our governor and director of FWP. The overwhelming opinion of the general public is that this process needs to be slowly, carefully and deliberately proceeded upon, with a high level of scrutiny through an environmental impact statement. We need to make absolutely sure that we do not let emotional arguments, such as ones made most recently in an editorial, cloud our judgments.

In this editorial, a case was made for the CSKT’s desire to move rapidly ahead with this proposal to kill 240,000 lake trout through increased angler harvest and agency gillnetting. This editorial was full of strong, emotional statements using such terms as “exploding lake trout population,” “stop the downward spiral of the bull trout population,” “avoid a future where the bull trout vanishes from Flathead Lake,” “Bull trout are just hanging on by their caudal fins” etc. etc.

The writer even went so far as to emotionalize the bull trout as “a creature that comes toward us and can be seen from the shore…” What any of this has to do with the actual science and evidence to the contrary regarding native fish populations in Flathead Lake becomes questionable, but especially so when one engages in serious study of the past ten years of plans, data, studies etc. as I and several others have done. If you would, allow me to speak to the facts as identified and mutually agreed upon by the co-managers of Flathead Lake, and others in the scientific study of our world class, yet endangered fishery.(sorry, got emotional there)

In the five year review of the ten year co-management plan, and again in the 2008 Draft Annual report, the conclusion of the co-managers was that the fish community in Flathead Lake has STABILIZED IN RECENT YEARS.

This means all species of native and non native fish. 2009 Bull Trout redd counts conducted by FWP biologists also support that bull trout are indeed stable in population and are present in ALL historical tributaries of the Flathead Basin. So as to assertions of a “downward spiral” and “vanishing” bull trout, the science simply does NOT support those statements. Also, in a study done by a Michael J Hansen of the University of Wisconsin, which has been used for the population estimate of 400,000 lake trout in Flathead Lake in 2008, he asserts that Flathead Lake is “likely near or at carrying capacity”. Again, so much for an “exploding Lake Trout population”.

The science and data clearly suggests that the increased angler harvest over the last ten years, specifically during the Mack Days contests, in which I participate eagerly, and the natural limitations in Lake Trout carrying capacity, have combined to, at the minimum, allow the ten year plans overall objectives to be deemed successful. In table 6 of the ten year plan, the management action for a stable bull trout and stable lake trout population is a reevaluation of goals and objectives, NOT a more aggressive harvest of lake trout as is being proposed. In fact strategy 5a, as adopted as the preferred strategy in the ten year plan, states “aggressive reductions in lake trout may be made if information shows that bull trout are not reaching at least secure levels.”

In addition, the editorial references the Swan Lake netting as a success. Quick looks at the recently released results indicate a five percent by catch of bull trout in the nets, resulting in an average mortality of FIFTY percent. Swan Lake netting has been touted as a “best case scenario” netting project and they were successful in killing 54% of the estimated lake trout population…In a presentation to FWI Thursday night, Wade Fredenberg of the USFWS advised us that we cannot compare the Swan Lake trout populations or even the lake itself to Flathead Lake; they are two distinctly different systems. A netting program in Flathead Lake would have very different results. In other words, comparisons of the two are irresponsible and misleading.

Lastly, this referenced editorial asserts that the netting would be “shelved” once reduction is achieved. This statement is in direct conflict with the multiple mentions in the ten year plan that commercial efforts to reduce lake trout, as well as agency management actions, are tasks that “would have to continue indefinitely”. This is most troublesome in that the efforts to gill net are being sold as a temporary measure when indeed they have been identified otherwise in the 10 year management plan that is being referenced as authority to do so.

Please, educate yourself by attending the upcoming meetings. Formulate and ask questions directly related to the issues before us. Visit our website (www.flatheadwildlife.org) and consider how you can help us make a difference in many issues facing sportsmen and women in the valley. The 10 year co-management plan was based on sound scientific values, judgments and public input. Let’s not change that now.

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