Guest Column

Illegal Fish Introductions Impacts in Northwest Montana

Together we can create a culture of responsible use and enjoyment of these rivers and lakes

Northwest Montana offers some of the finest waterways in Montana, spread across a variety of land ownerships. Waters in our part of the state are a public treasure and draw people from across the United States and beyond. As land and population managers, we share in the responsibility to manage and conserve these incredible resources with all the people who use and enjoy them.

One of the biggest issues to emerge in recent years is the threat posed to our aquatic resources from invasive and introduced species, ranging from zebra mussels to introduced non-native fish such as walleye. These introduced species threaten the special and valuable native fisheries systems in our part of the state as well as across Montana. Species like bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout are key components of our cold-water ecosystems. When illegally or accidentally introduced species invade our waters, the changes they set in motion degrade habitats for native fish species and can disrupt entire ecosystems. Whether these introduced species compete with native fish, prey on them, or alter the food chain, the effects can be devastating for native fish and other aquatic organisms we value greatly.

Anglers come from out of state to Northwest Montana to spend their dollars catching our native trout. Walk through the airport in July and you’ll likely see as many rod cases as suitcases. Many of these visitors are headed to the forks of the Flathead River. There are plenty of other places anglers can go to catch larger walleye, northern pike, or even rainbow trout. Illegal introductions of non-native species threaten fisheries values in Montana for angling which exceed a quarter of a billion dollars. They can destroy the aesthetic, water quality, and fisheries values that we all cherish.

As leaders of our agencies in northwest Montana, we place paramount importance on maintaining the quality and functions of our aquatic systems. Collectively, we work to prevent illegal introductions and take aggressive action to correct problems when possible. In recent years, visitors have noted increased enforcement and inspection stations across the region as part of an active program of prevention of aquatic invasive species introductions. All of this comes at a significant cost for state, Tribal and federal agencies but the ecologic and economic cost of failure if these species gain a foothold in our rivers and lakes is much, much greater.

The cost of illegal fish introductions and invasive species has already been great. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to control introduced illegal fish and other organisms. Large sums of money have been spent on prevention as well. To pay for this, funds must be diverted from positive efforts to manage our native aquatic systems and to provide for public access and enjoyment of those waters. We will continue to place a lot of emphasis on preventing these invasions since eradication of these species, once established is extraordinarily difficult and expensive.

We need your help. However you chose to recreate and enjoy these waters, there are things you can do to help prevent establishment of illegal fish populations or other non-native species. First, become aware of any activities you may take part in that could help spread aquatic invasive species. Be sure to clean, drain, and dry your watercraft, and stop at all invasive species check stations. Talk to your friends and others about the ethical and biological considerations of illegally introducing non native fish. Be vigilant and report illegal or even accidental fish introductions as soon as possible to local game wardens or park rangers. Lastly, consider contributing time and money to conservation organizations that work to stop illegal introductions and invasion by non-native species.

Together we can create a culture of responsible use and enjoyment of these rivers and lakes we all enjoy. What a wonderful gift to our state today and what a great legacy for future generations!

Jim Williams, Supervisor, Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks; Chip Weber, Supervisor, Flathead National Forest; Jeff Mow, Superintendant, Glacier National Park; Tom McDonald, Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation Division Manager, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; Steve Frye, Area Manager, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation