Sixty years ago, a fisherman caught 12 northern pike in Lake Sherburne, a manmade reservoir on the east side of Glacier National Park. With the fish still alive, the angler traveled to a small reservoir near Hot Springs and turned the pike loose in the water.
Six years later, in 1959, biologists documented the first official record of northern pike in the Clark Fork drainage, which sprawls an expansive region in the Rocky Mountains. In the ensuing years, through natural breeding and additional illegal introductions, the voracious predator that’s known for targeting native trout species infiltrated water bodies as far west as Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho, the Flathead River basin and the Little Bitterroot drainage south of Missoula.
The original angler came forward and admitted to planting the first pike after the discovery in 1959, and that single act stands as perhaps the most notorious modern example of so-called bucket biology.
Moving live fish from one body of water to another is illegal in Montana, but that hasn’t stopped “bucket biologists” from transporting nonnative game fish like pike, bass and walleye into the state’s vast collection of waterways.
“The problem doesn’t seem to be slowing down,” said Jim Vashro, the regional fisheries manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Kalispell.
Vashro estimated nearly 600 illegal introductions have occurred in 250 bodies of waters in the state, and roughly half of those incidents were in Northwest Montana.
“Those are just the ones we know about and have been able to document,” he said.
Last month FWP received a new report from an angler who caught a smallmouth bass on Seeley Lake this summer. The discovery has sparked a search for more information about who may have planted the bass and the extent of the new population, which FWP fears could drastically harm the lake’s trout and salmon populations. There are now roughly 15 sites across Western Montana where smallmouth bass have shown up illegally in recent years, Vashro said.
“The hard part is, it pits anglers against anglers,” he said.
Some anglers claim illegal introductions can produce new opportunities for recreation, while state officials and other sportsmen say the products of bucket biology wreak havoc on prized rivers and lakes and cost the state millions of dollars for suppression and restocking efforts.
Bass, for example, are popular among tournament anglers in Montana.
“I’m all for (bass in Montana),” said George Reidel, the president of the Bass Federation of Montana. “They’ve been here and well established in many fisheries for years.”
Last weekend, Reidel participated in a bass tournament at Fort Peck Reservoir, which he described as a world-class smallmouth bass fishery that ranks up there with Lake St. Clair in Michigan.
Reidel said he would like FWP to plant bass in more waters across the state, but he opposes individuals taking action on their own.
“I’m definitely against bucket biology,” he said. “As a biology major in college, I’m definitely against (it). I know what it can do to the environment and the food chain. It can totally destroy everything.”
Reidel said the state should give credence to warm-water fish populations and stock certain lakes that could handle bass and other gamefish species.
“There could be plantings here in the state that could benefit everybody,” he said.
But Vashro disagrees.
“For every illegal introduction that produces a decent fishery, I can show you 10 that have been a disaster,” Vashro said. “We’re losing angling days on the water because of the impacts. It’s also really raised management costs and now a bigger part of your fishing licenses goes to trying to deal with these.”
Vashro uses Lion Lake and Little McGregor Lake as prime local examples of popular fisheries changing with illegal introductions.
“Both were great trout fisheries in the past. Then we had a slew of illegal introductions and angler-use on both went to zero,” he said.
FWP used a fish toxin to eradicate the nonnative fish and then restocked both lakes with trout. Anglers returned to their old fishing spots, but not for long. New illegal introductions occurred, and now FWP is faced with the problem once again, Vashro said.
Many other lakes face similar problems, like Little Bitterroot, which is an important source of kokanee and trout and provides FWP a source for restocking across the state but is under attack from illegal fish plants.
The prevalence of bucket biology is leading FWP to reconsider its strategies for preventing incidents. Vashro said FWP is reviewing ways to increase education among the angling community, as well as the reward money for those who turn in bucket biologists through the 24-hour hotline, TIP-MONT.
Raising the punishment for those who illegally plant fish is another option, along with reducing opportunities for illegal fish.
“We need to take away the incentive,” Vashro said. “We need to not reward bad behavior.”
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