The Flathead Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited has long been committed to protecting the Flathead River system, one of the last best strongholds for native bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. The recent bipartisan support and passage of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act is a major step in the right direction. Hats off to Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh and to Rep. Steve Daines for working together to protect the North Fork of the Flathead from future mineral and energy development.
Given recent developments with coal mining in the Elk River drainage in British Columbia, and the continued low bull trout population numbers, as evidenced by annual counts of spawning beds, or “redds” in North Fork tributaries, the passage of this act is both timely and necessary.
Open pit coal mining in the Elk River drainage, just north of the divide from the North Fork, is releasing harmful levels of selenium into the Elk and Kootenai rivers with the potential to significantly impact fish populations. A recent study by the University of Montana compared water quality in the Elk River to water quality in the North Fork and found selenium levels seven to 10 times higher in the Elk. The Elk River may be nearing a tipping point where fish populations could crash due to bio-accumulation of this toxic element. Fortunately, the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, in concert with the British Columbia’s decision to restrict future mineral development, will help to prevent large-scale open pit coal mines and natural gas development in the North Fork.
The federally listed bull trout, a threatened species, fights an uphill battle to recovery. Bull trout redd count data from the North Fork, including data collected this year, are troublesome. For example, Trail Creek redd count surveys throughout the 1980s averaged over 57 redds per year. In 2014, only 5 redds were observed. Overall redd counts in the North Fork index streams this year are less than 40 percent of the long-term average. While this decline is largely attributable to predation by lake trout, the last thing we need are additional threats to bull trout recovery from mineral and energy development.
Hopefully, the North Fork will be a model for other bipartisan, collaborative conservation measures.
Larry Timchak, president
Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited