Treading Water

By Beacon Staff

YELLOW BAY – The yawning rift between agencies over how to manage lake trout in Flathead Lake grew even wider last month as biologists came to a deadlock in the face of a major proposal to control the invasive species. With no compromise in sight, and as key players from both camps exchange acrimonious salvos, the future of native and nonnative trout in the Flathead Valley is shadowed in uncertainty.

The path forward, much clearer a decade ago, has come to a standstill, obscured by competing obligations and fundamental differences in opinion.

“There is a pretty big gulf right now. The divide has been widening and the gloves are kind of off,” Jim Vashro, regional fisheries manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said. “We are clearly at an impasse in our approach to how to address this.”

On one side of the schism sits the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which released a major proposal to manage lake trout on June 21, submitting the draft environmental impact statement to the Federal Register and, in doing so, laying out a blueprint to reduce the lake trout population by as much as 75 percent, with the end goal of recovering native fish species like bull trout and westslope cutthroat.

Lake trout populations exploded after the state introduced mysis shrimp into the upper Flathead Drainage in 1968, and appeared in Flathead Lake in 1981. The increase in non-native lake trout led to the collapse of the kokanee salmon fishery and steep declines in native fish, including bull and cutthroat trout.

The new proposal, which calls for a combination of fishing contests, bounties and targeted gill- and trap-netting, has sparked a debate between management agencies as FWP officials dig in their heels in opposition to the plan.

In squaring off against biologists with the tribe, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey – all of whom agree that moving forward with the draft EIS is the best way to promote the recovery of native species – FWP officials say the proposed actions would have a deleterious effect on recreational fishing on Flathead Lake. They’re also skeptical the plan would benefit bull trout and cutthroat, arguing that proposed actions like netting could negatively impact native trout through unintended by-catch and shifts in the aquatic food web.

The standoff was palpable at a recent meeting at the Flathead Lake Biological Station on Yellow Bay, where a throng of journalists attending a fellowship through the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources observed biologists from the state, federal and tribal agencies exchange barbs as they sparred over the management plan.

The wrangling would be more productive, they all agreed, if there hadn’t been so lengthy a lapse in communication.

“We don’t talk anymore. We don’t talk and we don’t meet because we have created this buffer,” CSKT fisheries biologist Barry Hansen, who has led the EIS process, said. “In our opinion there is a lot of misinformation” being espoused publicly by the FWP.

The major points of contention are whether bull trout populations in the Flathead River Basin have improved or stabilized since 2000, when the tribe and FWP, who share fisheries management authority on Flathead Lake, adopted the Flathead Lake and River Fisheries Co-Management Plan with a goal of increasing the abundance of native bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. The co-management plan, which expired in 2010, relied on recreational fishing pressure and contests to control lake trout abundance.

“When that plan was written we didn’t understand how robust this lake trout population was. To some extent we thought we could have our cake and eat it, too,” Hansen said. “We are still struggling to get to a place where we can report progress. We’re not there.”

With the expiration of the 10-year management plan, the tribe began an extensive National Environmental Policy Act process to develop a new science-based plan for a reduction of the bloated lake trout population in order to benefit native fish in the lake and river system.
Alienated from that discussion is the tribe’s longtime partner, the FWP, which separated itself from the process in a public sign of disapproval in March of last year. FWP, which is charged with the dual mission of maintaining a recreational fishery while supporting a stable, or “secure,” population of native species, says bull trout levels in the Flathead Basin are stable as defined by the previous co-management plan.

“Right now we have a stable population and we have a recreational fishery. It’s a balance,” Mark Deleray, FWP fisheries biologist, said. “It might not be the balance everyone wants, but it’s a balance. In my opinion we have met the goals and objectives as laid out in the (2000) co-management plan.”

Hansen, as well as biologists with USFWS, USGS and other agencies, say the metric that FWP is relies on is misleading, and that aggressive reduction of lake trout in Flathead Lake is the only way to recover native bull trout, which are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

“’Stable’ was never the objective,” Hansen said. “We have not increased native fish populations. We have not decreased lake trout populations. We have absolutely no quantifiable information to tell us there has been any reduction in lake trout. I don’t see how it can be any clearer that we have not met our objectives.”

Under the draft management proposal, the annual harvest would range from 84,000 lake trout under the 25-percent reduction plan to 143,000 lake trout under the 75-percent reduction plan. Based on recent estimates, there are more than 1 million lake trout in Flathead Lake.

Since 2002, the tribal government has sponsored the Mack Days fishing derby to reduce lake trout numbers through a public competition. Coupled with the regular angling season, recreational fishing has accounted for the removal of approximately 70,000 lake trout annually, with low incidents of reported by-catch. While the contest’s popularity has grown, with $150,000 in prizes this year, Hansen said it hasn’t produced the results to justify the investment.

Under the previous plan, management actions like aggressive gill-netting would only be triggered if bull trout redds, or spawning nests, fell below “secure levels,” which are defined by an annual count of 300 redds in the North and Middle Fork Flathead River drainages. In 2012, the FWP counted 500 redds in a basin-wide survey, amounting to a population that is “60 percent above secure,” according to FWP officials.

Under the Endangered Species Act, however, the recovery criteria call for a return of the bull trout population in Flathead Lake to a mid-1980s level, which hovered at around 900 redds basinwide.

“The current level of 500, which (FWP) touts as being 60 percent above secure, is really only about 55 percent of our recovery level,” Wade Fredenberg, a fish biologist with the USFWS charged with recovering bull trout, said. A proponent of the draft management plan, Fredenberg called the 2002 study defining a basin-wide count of 300 redds as secure “garbage.”

“I thought at the time it was garbage. I still think it’s garbage,” he said. “And it doesn’t mean anything to us in terms of recovery.”

The peer-reviewed study curried some positive feedback, but a world-renown fish geneticist at the University of Montana, Fred Allendorf, concluded that the 300-redd secure level was inadequate as a conservation threshold.

“The definition of ‘secure’ is not adequate. ‘Secure’ is defined as unlikely to go extinct,” Allendorf wrote in a letter to Hansen and Deleray, who collaborated on the 2002 plan.

In the letter, Allendorf identified two flaws with the criteria. First, he said each individual spawning tributary should be recognized as having its own reproductive population because there is limited exchange among tributaries.

Second, he wrote that 300 redds per year is “extremely low when you consider that this is spread out over 11 or more spawning tributaries.”

“This number of redds is in the range where extinction … is extremely high in the short-term,” he wrote. “I appreciate the difficulty and complexity of the task you have. Nevertheless, I believe that the current criteria are not sufficient to protect native trout in the Flathead system.”

Clint Muhlfeld, an aquatics ecologist whose research at Glacier National Park’s USGS field station is meant to inform conservation and management programs, including the EIS, said the Flathead Basin supports the most intact aquatic ecosystem along the Rocky Mountain spine and is a range-wide stronghold for bull trout. The native species has declined dramatically since the 1980s, he said, owing primarily to competition and predation by lake trout in Flathead Lake.

The 300-redd threshold is low, he said, given that bull trout use 31 spawning tributaries and inhabit 12 connected lakes in Glacier National Park, the majority of which have been invaded by lake trout. In eight of the lakes, Muhlfeld said the bull trout populations are functionally extinct.

He compared the gradual elimination of those meta-populations to individual bulbs winking out on a string of Christmas lights; soon, the whole network goes dark.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Interior

“The best available scientific information suggests that bull trout inhabiting the upper Flathead Lake and River system are not secure, with several local populations and Glacier National Park bull trout core areas at high risk of extirpation in the foreseeable future,” he said.
Muhlfeld also questioned the FWP’s regulation on slot limits, which protects the largest fish in the lake while at the same time trying to reduce the population.

“That to me has always been extremely perplexing and contradictory,” Muhlfeld said.

Fredenberg said USFWS wildlife officials charged with recovering the species are “treading water,” and will continue to do so until the lake trout population is dramatically reduced.

“If you want to recover a species you have to eliminate the biggest risk,” he said. “Far and away the single greatest risk to the persistence of bull trout in this entire ecosystem is lake trout.”

Norm Brewer, who operates Captain Norm’s Flathead Lake Fishing Charters, the largest of seven outfitters on the lake, said he’s already landing fewer trophy lake trout due to the twice-annual fishing derbies.

“Our catch rates have gone down every year and it affects our tourism industry,” he said. “I’m getting people from all over the world fishing here. This is going to put us out of business.”

Vashro said moving forward with the management plan would be detrimental to the angler contingent, which fuels the economy and, through licenses, helps fund the agency.

“There are very few lakes where you can get a trophy lake trout, and we are going to lose that angler component” under the proposed management action, Vashro said.

Even though the path forward remains murky, agency officials agree that, at some point, a shared vision for future management must be reached.

The tribe, which is a sovereign nation, has the authority to act unilaterally and pursue lake trout suppression on its own, though only the south half of Flathead Lake lies within the CSKT boundary.

In the absence of better communication, FWP officials agree it seems more and more likely that the tribe will move in that direction, but hope that an agreement can be reached.

“We can’t just draw a line down the middle of the lake and manage it two different ways,” Deleray said. “I’m a firm believer in co-management, and I hope we can achieve that.”

In a letter to CSKT Tribal Council Chairman Joe Durglo, FWP Director Jeff Hagener suggested retaining a third-party mediator to “help us work through differences and to create a shared vision for future management direction.”

The deadline for public comment on CSKT’s proposed management plan is Aug. 5. Written comments can be mailed to Les Evarts, Fisheries Program Manager, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Natural Resources Department, P.O. Box 278, Pablo, MT 59855. They also can be emailed to les@cskt.org, with “DEIS comment” in the subject line.

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