By Rob Chaney, of the Missoulian:
Anglers would remain the first line of attack to reduce non-native lake trout in Flathead Lake in northwestern Montana, but the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes want the largest toolbox possible to help balance struggling bull trout populations there.
CSKT endorsed an environmental impact statement alternative that calls for removal of up to 75 percent of the estimated 1.5 million lake trout in the state’s biggest freshwater lake.
Tribal wildlife division manager Tom McDonald said the process would be gradual.
“All we’re trying to do is establish a declining lake trout population and an increasing trend of bull trout and westslope cutthroat,” McDonald said on Thursday, shortly after the CSKT decision was announced. “Just to get it to move, using the tools we have – that would be a huge thing. We’ve been trying to do that for 13 years.”
Tribal, state and federal wildlife agencies have been working on the environmental impact statement for a long time as well, trying to find a way to prevent the predatory lake trout from eliminating Flathead’s other fish species. The draft EIS had four options, including doing nothing, and attempting to reduce the lake trout by 25, 50 and 75 percent.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported reducing lake trout by either 50 or 75 percent in July. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks officially pulled out of the collaborative planning effort in March 2012. In June, it made several objections to lake trout-reduction plans, including that bull trout populations were secure, that gill-netting would kill too many bull trout and whitefish, and that reducing lake trout could trigger algae blooms that would hurt the lake’s water quality.
On Thursday, FWP spokesman Tom Palmer said only that the agency was “assessing the new information, and we’re going to continue to communicate with the tribes.” He would not comment on whether FWP still maintained those June objections.
Montana Trout Unlimited conservation director Mark Aagenes hailed the tribes’ recommendation and asked FWP to follow suit.
“We commend the tribes for producing a scientifically sound document and moving forward on reducing lake trout numbers in Flathead Lake,” Aagenes said in an email. “Our hope is that Montana FWP, a co-manager of the lake, sees this as an opportunity to re-engage in the process and continue its advocacy for native fish conservation.”
Lake trout, also called mackinaw, were first introduced in Flathead Lake in the early 1900s. Their populations were stable until the 1980s, when an introduction of mysis shrimp gave them a new food source that overbalanced their growth rate. Lake trout were blamed for first devouring Flathead’s kokanee salmon fishery, and then damaging bull and cutthroat trout numbers.
Studies done during the EIS process determined lake trout numbers could withstand a 75 percent cutback, although McDonald said the threshold wasn’t a hard target.
“We really want to use anglers, and hopefully we don’t have to use agency action beyond that,” McDonald said. “But we have those other tools available.”
That may include continuing the biannual Mack Days fishing derbies, although McDonald said another option was to offer a year-round bounty on lake trout. CSKT officials previously warned they would quit funding the fishing derby if the no-action proposal was adopted, because it was not producing a significant impact on lake trout numbers. The next derby is scheduled to start Oct. 4.
Other tactics include developing a commercial fishery for lake trout, or involving state or federal agencies to net the fish. McDonald said the challenge will be to find methods that have the least “by-catch” of bull trout and other struggling species.
Flathead Lake has an estimated 3,000 bull trout, and that species is listed as threatened by the federal government. If it were to shift to endangered, McDonald said that could cause far more disruptive measures to recover the fish.
On the other hand, reducing lake trout could boost perch and Lake Superior whitefish, which are also popular recreational fisheries.
“I don’t know anybody who comes strictly to fish for lake trout on Flathead Lake,” McDonald said. “This used to be a No. 1 fishery for kokanee (salmon), and that’s when these outfitter businesses started to develop. There were only 40,000 lake trout back then. The recreational fishing pressure has declined because there’s not a diverse fishery. It’s tanking right now, even when we’re paying people to come fish with Mack Days.”
The public will have an opportunity to comment on the preferred alternative when the Bureau of Indian Affairs publishes the final EIS. Read the draft Environmental Impact Statement on lake trout at mackdays.com/DEIS.