Glacier Park

Groups Challenge Glacier Park’s Bull Trout Preservation Project in Gunsight Lake

Arguing that the park’s proposed introduction of an “experimental population” into an alpine lake that was historically fishless violates the Endangered Species Act, the environmental organizations this week filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue

By Tristan Scott
Gunsight Lake. Courtesy Glacier National Park

Last summer, fisheries managers in Glacier National Park used a fish toxicant to remove non-native rainbow trout from Gunsight Lake, laying the foundation for a multi-year conservation strategy to replace the invasive fish with genetically pure, locally adapted strains of westslope cutthroat and bull trout, effectively establishing a native fish reserve.

For local scientists who have monitored the steady decline of native fish species like bull trout in and around Glacier, the project represents a strategic intervention based on more than a decade of research establishing a framework for native fish translocations, which they say have become an important tool for the long-term conservation of native species threatened by human stressors, including the introduction of invasive species, habitat loss and climate change.

For a pair of environmental groups challenging the project, however — including the organization that successfully petitioned bull trout for Endangered Species Act protections more than 25 years ago — it’s a corner-cutting “scheme” that amounts to park managers “playing God.”

“This project is an experiment,” Arlene Montgomery, program director for Friends of the Wild Swan and the original petitioner for bull trout listing, said in a prepared statement on June 1, when she and the Council on Wildlife and Fish filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue Glacier National Park and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). “The park did not have a proper permit to relocate threatened bull trout wherever it wanted. Yet the Fish and Wildlife Service went along with the scheme.”

“Fisheries biologists playing God make this stuff up, give it a fancy name, and hide it from public scrutiny — it’s ludicrous,” added Steve Kelly, president of the Council on Wildlife and Fish.”

Native westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout stranded in a pool in Glacier National Park’s Ole Creek. Courtesy Jonny Armstrong | USGS

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) prohibits creating experimental populations of endangered and threatened species outside their current and historic range except “by regulation,” the groups contend. Because Glacier Park has proposed moving bull trout from other lakes in the St. Mary watershed, where bull trout currently live, and planting them in Gunsight Lake, where bull trout have never lived — likely because waterfalls downstream from the alpine lake serve as barriers preventing upstream fish migration — the project as proposed violates the ESA, according to the logic of the legal challenge.

But for fisheries managers who have dedicated their careers to preserving native fish species in and around the park, as well as for ecologists working to support the projects through more than a decade of peer-reviewed scientific evidence, the Gunsight Lake project presents a unique opportunity to bolster bull trout populations in one of their last best strongholds.

“Establishing conservation populations through translocation is increasingly being used as a strategy to recover and preserve imperiled species in the face of climate change, invasive species, and habitat loss, which aligns with the intent of the Endangered Species Act — to recover them,” Clint Muhlfeld, an aquatic biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the research arm that helps inform federal management and recovery of native species, said Tuesday. “’Playing God’ happened a century ago when non-native fish were stocked all over the park, causing the widespread decline and extirpation of native bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout populations. This project represents cutting-edge science to conserve imperiled species and entire communities.”

Muhlfeld has spent years working to identify suitable recipient sites for translocation in Glacier National Park, including the Logging, Camas and Lincoln Creek drainages west of the Continental Divide, and the St. Mary River on its eastern flanks.

As the last drainage east of the U.S. Continental Divide to support native bull trout, the St. Mary River drainage is a rarefied ecosystem that has experienced dramatic declines of its native fish populations. Today, all but one of its remaining westslope cutthroat trout populations have some level of hybridization with either non-native rainbow or Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and researchers say that without proactive management intervention their long-term persistence hangs in the balance. A tributary of the South Saskatchewan River drainage, the St. Mary River drainage now supports hybrid species that lack the genetic and behavioral adaptations that native species have adopted over the course of millennia.

Because the genetically impure populations radiate outward from infested lakes, including Gunsight, they have compromised the entire watershed.

According to Montgomery, with Friends of the Wild Swan, the fact that translocations are becoming more common as a conservation strategy supports her argument that federal agencies must follow their own regulatory guidelines by designating the new population “experimental.”

“The Park Service is returning to a bygone era of poisoning lakes where undesirable fish live and stocking them with desirable fish,” according to the groups’ notice of intent. “Congress long ago put constraints on that approach. The Park Service ignored them. Instead of better managing bull trout in its existing range, which is difficult, it poisoned a lake to move them, which is easier.”

A large migratory bull trout captured in Boulder Creek in the St. Mary River drainage of Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy of Jim Mogen, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The groups argue that introducing bull trout in Gunsight is “experimental” because it creates a population outside the species’ current range, and “outside any overlap with already existing populations.”

But if Gunsight Lake falls outside of the historic range of bull trout, researchers say it’s only by dint of the natural fish barriers preventing them from migrating upstream from the St. Mary River; although those same barriers, including St. Mary Falls, don’t prevent stocked invasives from traveling downstream. Moreover, given Gunsight Lake’s high elevation, researchers say it has strong potential to sustain the cold-water habitat necessary for bull trout and westslope bull trout to persist in a changing climate.

“When working on these projects, there’s always been a fair amount of debate over what the word ‘range’ means,” Wade Fredenberg, the FWS’ former bull trout recovery coordinator for the region. “If you draw a circle around bull trout range in the St. Mary drainage, it includes Gunsight Lake; but if you use a fine-scale interpretation and go water-by-water, then you can make the argument that it doesn’t include Gunsight Lake.”

Now retired from FWS, Fredenberg is the Flathead Valley chapter president of Trout Unlimited, advocating for the recovery of native fish species in northwest Montana, including through conservation measures such as the removal of invasive species and the translocation of native trout. According to Fredenberg, the range of bull trout in this case should be defined to include Gunsight Lake.

“It’s disappointing they are forcing biologists with Glacier National Park to expend energy and effort to fight frivolous lawsuits when we could be working together to recover the species,” Fredenberg said.

Chris Downs, Glacier Park’s aquatic and physical science programs leader who is spearheading the project, said this week that he could not comment on the pending litigation; however, last year he told the Beacon that the conservation value of the Gunsight Lake preservation project far outweighs the value of maintaining the status of an historically fishless body of water.

“I understand the ecological value of having fishless waters on the landscape, because fish do modify ecosystems. But this ecosystem has already been modified by the introduction of nonnative trout more than a century ago,” Downs said a year ago. “And the consequences of those introductions are even more serious today.”

According to the groups’ notice of intent, the agencies have 60 days to correct the alleged Endangered Species Act violations before legal action occurs.

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