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Fish of the West

The waters of the Flathead are filled with non-native fish

By Rob Breeding

Years ago I attended a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks meeting at the Kalispell Center Mall. The topic that evening was a proposal to poison lakes in the upper South Fork drainage to eliminate non-native fish and replace them with the trout found there before we started doing what we always do when come to a new place: stocking waters with our favorite fish.

The native trout was the westslope cutthroat. The non-native was the rainbow trout, today quite possibly the most sought after game fish in Montana. Rainbows have been introduced in almost every Montana water where they are found today. The exception is the Kootenai River, which just nicks the state’s northwest corner. Only there are rainbows true Montana natives.

The crowd reaction at that meeting at the mall was mixed. A lot of folks weren’t happy with the plan. One opponent held above his head a mounted fish caught in the disputed waters — I think it was a cuttbow but I don’t remember for sure — that probably pushed 10 pounds.

Others weren’t happy with the plan because they didn’t think it went far enough. The fish intended to restock the lakes were pure strain westslope cutthroats, but they were a wild strain that came from a hatchery. The purists wanted the lakes to be restocked with cutthroats captured from within the South Fork drainage, preserving as much of the distinct DNA of the native fish as possible.

I’m not sure either side got exactly what they wanted, but the restoration project seems to be a success. The poison used, Rotenone, is a safe, natural chemical that is produced by plants in the Amazon. PETA people and other animals rights activists pretend otherwise, but Rotenone has been a key component in the safe restoration of many threatened or endangered fish in the west.

Those early fish introductions we currently find ourselves working so hard to undue were usually the work of state fisheries biologists, a point restoration opponents like to make whenever they get the chance. Yeah, we all know the state introduced mysis shrimp into the Flathead drainage and eventually Flathead Lake, and how that water became one of the West’s most extensive laboratories for the unintended consequences of random species introductions.

But that’s really a moot point. We know a heck of a lot more about biology than we did 50 or 100 years ago. We’ve also made the decision as a nation that we value native species and intend to preserve them. That’s an ethic we codified into law with the Endangered Species Act. If you really have a problem with projects such as the one on the South Fork there’s a remedy: convince Congress to pass, and the president to sign a law repealing the ESA.

These days the problem usually isn’t state-sponsored bucket biology, it’s folks who have decided to bring their fish along with them. Bass and walleye, for instance. These are fine fish, but if it’s important to you to fish for them on a regular basis, you really should move to Alabama or Minnesota rather than illegally dumping them in the Montana water of your choosing.

It’s no secret that fans of these fish are catching them elsewhere, filling their live wells, and bringing them here. This kind of bucket biology used to be what passed for fisheries management. We filled lakes with fish folks liked to catch. Today — because society has decided that native fisheries have a value that transcends the desires of some hardcore anglers — sometimes we get rid of fish folks like because the fish just don’t belong here.

The waters of the Flathead are filled with non-native fish. Only a fool would believe that someday all of those non-natives will be gone. But anglers who try to impose their preferences on the rest of us are only endangering what’s left of wild Montana.

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