Concerned local residents and their government allies are fighting to save Lake Mary Ronan, the quiet 1,500-acre body of water near Dayton that is home to one of the only broodstocks of kokanee salmon in Montana.
Friends of Lake Mary Ronan gained official nonprofit status only within the last two years, but the group’s members have long collaborated to try and keep the lake’s waters clean and, more recently, to address a potentially dangerous infestation of Northern Pike that threatens both kokanee salmon and trout fisheries on the lake. Jim Baker, a resident of Lake Mary Ronan for more than a decade, is the FLMR president and says the stakes for the lake could not be higher.
“We know the lake is actually dying,” he said.
Volunteer groups like the Flathead Lakers, Swan Lakers and Whitefish Lake Institute have long been working to maintain healthy ecosystems in and around their respective lakes, but the FLMR may have the toughest battle of any of those groups on their hands, simply because of how contaminated the lake’s waters have become.
Data collected by the Northwest Montana Lakes Volunteer Monitoring Network shows significantly higher levels of persulfate nitrogen, phosphorous and chlorophyll in Lake Mary Ronan than any other large lake (greater than 500 acres) in Northwest Montana. The lake is “trend(ing) toward eutrophic,” according to Baker, meaning the amount of plant life in the lake has grown so large that it is preventing oxygen from reaching other aquatic life, including kokanee, largemouth bass, rainbow trout and yellow perch at the lake’s fisheries. The eutrophication, Baker said, comes from a combination of logging, cattle grazing, fertilizers used by residents on shore, septic waste and other development-related environmental impacts.
Any threat to the fish population in Lake Mary Ronan would impact one of the lake’s most important features, and not just to locals. Kokanee salmon eggs harvested from Lake Mary Ronan are used to populate hatcheries throughout Montana and are vital to the fish’s survival in the state. And eutrophication is not the only threat to the species.
So-called bucket biologists illegally introduced northern pike sometime earlier this decade in an attempt to increase the opportunities for anglers on the lake. The first pike were caught in 2014 and the first confirmed pike reproduction in Lake Mary Ronan was documented in 2018. Pike are extremely predacious, and on June 19 the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission approved “an emergency regulation change” requiring anglers to kill and turn in any Northern Pike caught in Lake Mary Ronan within 10 days of capture. Anglers are required to notify FWP within 24 hours of the catch by calling (406) 752-5501.
“We’re taking this very seriously and trying to learn as much as we can about the unauthorized introduction to best inform our future management,” FWP Fisheries Biologist Kenneth Breidinger stated in a press release announcing the move.
Friends of Lake Mary Ronan will host an open house on Saturday, June 22 at the Proctor Community Center in Proctor from 1 to 3 p.m. that will include a presentation by FWP biologist Sam Bourret on the native pike infestation. Additional presenters include Jim Craft of the Flathead Lake Biological Station on water quality, and Samantha Tappenbeck of the Montana Association of Conservation Districts on controlling septic contamination.
For Baker and other residents, the open house is just the latest way to try and shine a light on challenges facing the lake they call home. Donations in the last two years have allowed the Friends of Lake Mary Ronan to purchase $17,000 in monitoring equipment, put on educational programs and hold a youth program at Camp Tuffitt, a more than 100-year-old fishing resort on the lake.
The Friends of Lake Mary Ronan are also closely monitoring ongoing development. Baker believes it’s a matter of when not if additional development begins in earnest, and he and others are working with developers to ensure growth is done responsibly because, as Baker says, the land “(won’t) be worth a flip if that lake goes.”
For more information on the Friends of Lake Mary Ronan, visit www.friendsoflakemaryronan.org.