Bull Fights

Bull Fights

What wrangling can same Montana's bull trout in their biggest and best Western U.S. Refuge?

  • By: Ted Williams
  • Photography by: Peter Thompson
Bull Trout

Bob Orsua was in full cry on September 15, 2010. “That’s a lie!” he told me between deep inhalations as he spoke unofficially for the 100-member Flathead Wildlife Inc. rod-and-gun club and virtually all outfitters, charter skippers and guides who work 122,885-acre Flathead Lake in northwestern Montana.

He was referring to the contention by the U.S. Geological Survey; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; National Park Service; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; and Trout Unlimited that alien lake trout are wiping out native bull trout in the vast, wild Flathead watershed that extends into 20 connected lakes, Glacier National Park, the Swan Valley and streams and rivers stretching 150 miles into British Columbia.

Orsua and the four guides he employs do about 300 charters a year, catering mostly to lake-trout anglers who flock to Flathead, the largest natural freshwater lake in the contiguous states west of the Mississippi. He went on to condemn proposed lake-trout control, especially gillnetting, which is favored by the tribes and anathema to the state.

“The tribes said they have interagency differences with the state which means, ‘You’re a liar, and we don’t care what you say, we’re gonna kill lake trout,’” Orsua said. “They’re getting money to put people to work to kill fish. That’s what it’s about—job security. What do fishermen pay their licenses for? To catch fish, period. They don’t care what kind of fish. White men aren’t native; are we supposed to get out of the state also?”

The bull trout, a large, robust piscivorous char that reaches 30 pounds, filled a salmon-like niche in the inland West, maturing in large, cold lakes, migrating up tributaries on some of the longest spawning runs of any freshwater salmonid, sustaining birds, mammals and people en route. Today only about 100 lakes in the contiguous states still sustain native adfluvial bull trout (which evolved to grow in lakes and spawn in streams) and only about half of these occur in intact, undammed ecosystems.

The U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries dumped lake trout into Flathead in 1905, hoping to establish a commercial fishery. But like so many other fish introductions by non-professionals and professionals, the scheme failed and the lake trout sputtered along for 75 years. Bull trout probably took a hit, but not much of one.

In 1968, Montana FWP sought to increase forage for kokanee salmon (landlocked sockeyes and then the bread-and-butter sportfish of the Flathead system) by planting mysis shrimp in Ashley, Whitefish and Swan lakes. According to fish managers, the shrimp don’t migrate. But the shrimp didn’t read the literature and in 1981 they showed up downstream in Flathead Lake.

Kokanees relish mysis shrimp when they can catch them, but in Flathead they couldn’t. Kokanees are sight-feeders, and during the day the shrimp dropped into the dark depths where the kokanees didn’t venture. At night, when the kokanees couldn’t see them, the shrimp moved up in the water column, chowing down on and depleting the zooplankton that sustained kokanees.

Meanwhile, the deep-dwelling lake trout found a cornucopia in the shrimp and their population exploded. When the lake trout reached a certain size they switched their diet from shrimp to such fish as kokanee, native westslope cutthroat and bull trout. As reef spawners, lake trout have a tremendous advantage over the two native trout species in that they don’t have to expose themselves to predation by leaving the lake to reproduce. And lake-trout fry, hatched into a smorgasbord, don’t have to run the gauntlet down to the lake.

Although kokanees are alien to this system, they never did much ecological damage apart from competing for zooplankton with westslope cutts. And they provided superb forage for bull trout. But soon after the mysis invasion, kokanee runs went from half a million to zero. Understandably, anglers were furious, and their distrust for fish managers lingers.

Unlike bull trout, westslope cutts have no protection under the Endangered Species Act, but it’s clear that lake trout have devastated the large, adfluvial fish of the Flathead system. The problem is there’s no good way of tracking their decline because cutthroat trout are spring spawners and in this habitat high water, snow and ice make redd counts impossible.

Not so with fall-spawning bull trout. Montana FWP conducts annual redd counts across about 45 percent of the bull-trout spawning range. That index went from a high of 600 redds in 1982 to a low of 83 in 1996, a crash that led to the listing of bull trout as threatened throughout its remaining range in the contiguous states—Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

Since then, there has been modest recovery in the Flathead-system fish and the 2009 redd count (the most recent at this writing) was 187. That’s considerably above what the state and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (which own the southern half of Flathead Lake) agree is a “secure” level. And the state goes so far as to call the population “stable.”

But definitions of “stable” and “secure” vary. “We don’t view the bull trout [population] in Flathead as being stable,” says Wade Fredenberg, native fish coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that enforces the Endangered Species Act for inland fish. “We find that some populations have cratered to very low levels where we’re getting zero redds in some years. It’s like the lights on a Christmas tree; they burn out one at a time and you don’t see it until a whole patch goes dark. We think that bull trout are still relatively unstable, that the levels out there for spawning populations in many of these tributaries are not sustainable. We’re very concerned about that. We want to increase the population in Flathead Lake to a stronger baseline level.”

And tribal fisheries biologist Barry Hansen adds: “Our position is the bull-trout population is still too low, and that brings with it risk. So stability isn’t the whole story. The risk is important. We don’t think it’s safe to say they’ll continue to be stable or that this is a desirable population level.”

“Security” (the point at which managers decide that extirpation ceases to be imminent) seems to be the new goal of the state—not a very ambitious one for what had been the top aquatic predator of the sprawling international ecosystem that includes the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a United Nations World Heritage site and Biosphere Reserve. What’s more, security was never intended to be a goal of the 10-year, cooperative management plan that the tribes and state agreed on in 2000; it was the floor, below which more “aggressive” lake-trout controls were to be implemented.

The press has reported that the tribes have “backed away from gillnetting,” but what they’ve backed away from is the word, not the act. When I pressed Salish and Kootenai tribal fishery chief Les Evarts he said they favor any aggressive control that might produce results whether it be a bounty, commercial fishing, trapnetting or gillnetting. When I pressed him further, he acknowledged that he and his staff had evaluated commercial fishing and a bounty system and rejected both as unworkable—the lake trout’s greasy flesh limits demand, and a bounty system has never worked anywhere for anything. Trapnetting might help control lake trout, but it’s expensive and experimental. That leaves gillnetting, a method of lake-trout contral proven effective on other water bodies and desperately needed on Flathead.

Both the tribes and state can be excused for believing that angling pressure alone would work because lake trout are notoriously sensitive to overexploitation. For this reason, they are managed with extreme caution throughout their natural range.

But the angling kill on Flathead hasn’t affected the lake-trout population. Currently, the daily lake-trout limit is 50; and next year it will be 100. Creel-census data indicate that any daily limit over five is close to meaningless because almost no one takes home more than five lake trout. But the thinking is that if there’s some kind of a limit, a few anglers will keep fishing in an effort to fill it and lake trout won’t get the reputation of what they really are in this system—trash fish.

During the fishing tournaments sponsored by the tribes (which amount to a sophisticated bounty system), participants occasionally do catch 50 lake trout; and some take home $10,000 a year. Total prize money is $100,000. Tournament days run Fridays through Sundays for 11 weeks in spring and 7 weeks in fall. And a few tagged fish in the lake are worth $5,000 each. The money, disbursed by the tribes, comes from the federal mitigation fund for Kerr Dam on the Flathead River, the lake’s natural outlet.

In addition to the daily limit there’s a slot limit. You have to release every lake trout between 30 and 36 inches. This bone, tossed by the tribes and state to the lake-trout contingent, was supposed to ensure a trophy fishery and keep anglers out there killing lake trout as they looked for the big ones. Unfortunately the big ones produce lots of eggs and eat lots of bull trout. The slot leaves Fredenberg scratching his head.

“It’s hard for me to envision how we can accomplish both a significant reduction in lake trout and maintain a trophy fishery for them,” he said. “And those large fish are full of PCBs and mercury; there’s a health advisory out on them. So why are we managing for fish that aren’t being eaten?”

And this from Clint Muhlfeld, research aquatic ecologist for the U.S. Geologic Survey who’s stationed in Glacier National Park: “I think it will be very difficult to both maintain the trophy lake-trout fishery and rebuild bull trout in the Flathead system. The number of lake trout in the slot has actually increased. That dual mission is very challenging. I’m not aware of any other situation where you could do both. Those goals are contradictory.”

On the other hand, Jim Vashro, regional fisheries manager for Montana FWP points out that large lake trout are cannibalistic, eating smaller lake trout as well as bull trout and westslope cutts and that when you knock down the old element in any population there’s compensation via increased reproduction. True enough.

But in every other lake-trout-control program—on Yellowstone Lake, Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille, even in Quartz and Swan Lakes, which drain into Flathead—the objective is to crush the aliens. On Flathead it’s to tweak them a tad lower to recover the natives; but, at the same time, maintain a robust lake-trout fishery with plenty of trophy potential. And, as stipulated in the cooperative management plan, if fishing pressure drops below 50,000 angler days per year managers will back off lake-trout control. Billed as “a win-win,” the plan is symptomatic of our society’s commitment to dieting, exercise, energy conservation, and native-ecosystem restoration: Go all out with everything you have—until it hurts.

By 2006 it was clear that angling wasn’t getting the lake-trout-control job done, and the Fish and Wildlife Service demanded more aggressive control. The state resisted. The tribes asked for two more years to bring the kill up to 60,000, stipulating that if angling couldn’t do it, they’d make up the difference quickly at the end of the season with minor gillnetting. Two years later the kill hadn’t reached 60,000. And at this writing, with anglers taking close to 60,000 lake trout but still not influencing the population, there still is no gillnetting.

Alien control by angler is dangerous medicine because at the same time it kills the aliens it builds a support base for them. The tournaments (which the state objected to but now supports, possibly because it sees them as an alternative to gillnetting) have become hugely popular. They account for between 25,000 and 30,000 lake trout a year, about half the total harvest. But even that kind of a kill isn’t enough to make a difference.

“We’re not doing this for fun,” one tribal spokesman told me. “If we’re not given the tools to do the job right, we’ll shut these contests down.”

Just as no one in the tribes will tell you they favor gillnetting, no one in Montana FWP will tell you they oppose it. What they’ll all tell you is that they’re now engaged in environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act to determine what kind of control is needed. But the tribes have the lead in this process; and what they said at the outset was that every alternative had to have netting in it. The purpose is not to decide whether to reduce lake trout because that decision has already been made.

I haven’t encountered a manager more passionately committed to saving bull trout than the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Fredenberg. He has spent 50 years living next to them and seen lake after lake in the Flathead system “hosed,” as he puts it, by invading lake trout. Like mysis shrimp, lake trout were said not to migrate—and like the shrimp they didn’t read the literature. It’s a major stretch, for example, to believe that someone put lake trout in a bucket and toted them five miles through rugged terrain up into Quartz Lake in Glacier National Park.

So I was surprised when Fredenberg said, “I don’t know that the Fish and Wildlife Service wants gillnetting either.” But he soon made it clear that what his agency didn’t want was half-hearted gillnetting. “A little bit of gillnetting around the edges is going to be meaningless,” he continued. “All it’s going to do is stir up a lot of people. We took 10,000 lake trout out of Swan Lake in three weeks. Swan is one-thirty-third the size of Flathead. An equivalent effort in Flathead would be to remove 330,000. And we’re talking about taking out 60,000? Why bother? I think you either have to go big or go home.”

There’s evidence that “going big” will work. The best comes from Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille, where alien lake trout, proliferating on alien mysis shrimp, were in the process of extirpating native adfluvial bull trout and westslope cutthroats as well as a popular and prolific population of alien kokanees, which had provided forage for bull trout and alien Kamloops rainbows.

The state and feds went to the public and said: Bull trout have to be a priority because they’re federally threatened, and we’ll recover kokanees while we’re at it. But there’s no room for and no win-win for lake trout; we’re gonna nuke ’em.

Major lake-trout control, most effectively with gillnetting, has been underway on Lake Pend Oreille for five years. There’s an obvious change in size and age structure of lake trout; and, with an additional boost from better water management, kokanees are rebounding. “I can tell you that if kokanees come storming back in Pend Oreille and if Montana fishermen start going to Idaho to fish for them, that’s going to open a few eyes over here,” says Fredenberg.

On Yellowstone Lake, whirling disease has complicated recovery of Yellowstone cutthroat, but after years of unremarkable results gillnetting of lake-trout is finally being ramped-up; and there are early signs that the increased effort is benefiting the natives.

“Going big” is, of course, far easier in small habitats like 870-acre Quartz Lake, one of nine lakes in Glacier National Park where bull trout and westslope cutthroat face extirpation by invading lake trout coming up from Flathead. Two others are in imminent danger, and the 12th and last has been invaded by alien brook trout, which cross with bull trout (though the hybrids are almost always sterile).

Quartz may be the only lake in the world where there’s a real possibility of eliminating alien lake trout. In 2009 the U.S. Geological Survey’s Clint Muhlfeld and his team radio-tagged 11 lake trout and found that they spawned at night in mid-October on two piles of avalanche rubble. In 2009 they gillnetted 500 lake trout; and, to their delight, recaptured ten of the 11 radio-tagged fish, indicating extremely efficient control.

Five factors make Quartz different: 1) there’s a good but not complete barrier downstream that can be improved to 100-percent efficiency; 2) the invasion is only five years old; 3) lake trout are the only alien present (as opposed to Flathead where 12 of the 22 fish species are aliens); 4) it is mysis-free; and 5) it’s a glacial lake with little hiding space.

With any gillnetting operation there’s always incidental take of non-target fish, and concern has been expressed about bull-trout mortality (much of it disingenuous and from lake-trout advocates). But gillnetting is done in the fall when most of the mature bull trout have left the lake on their spawning runs. In 2010, a collaborative, three-week gillnetting effort on Swan Lake by the state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Trout Unlimited accounted for about 10,000 lake trout. Incidental take of bull trout was just over 200, of which roughly half were released alive.

Fredenberg points out that there’s a joint push by Canada and the U.S. to purchase and otherwise retire leases for gold, coal, oil and gas extraction in 9,000 square miles of the upper Flathead River Basin and that millions are being spent restoring and saving forestland in the Swan Valley.

“But we’re not connecting the dots,” he says. “What’s the point of protecting all this habitat if the keystone predator fish in this whole ecosystem can’t occupy it because they’re taking a beating down in the lake? I’ve got to be honest; if I were a Canadian, I’d be asking why do you want us to give up all this development potential when you’re not willing to do something on your side of the border to maintain the native fish that require all this habitat?”

The day before I interviewed Bob Orsua, about 30 of his fellow charter skippers, outfitters and guides, along with their wives and girlfriends, staged a save-the-lake-trout protest in front of the Montana FWP office in Kalispell. Gillnetting is being pushed by the tribes, not the state, but Kalispell was convenient for the media, which gave the performance major play. Demonstrators in outlandish fish costumes flounced around with placards that read: “No Netting on Flathead,” “One Fish Shouldn’t Die for Another” and, expressing the theme of the event, “Lake Trout and Bull Trout Can Live Together.” Bull trout enactors strolled fin-in-fin with lake-trout enactors—announcing to the world that no matter where fish species evolved, when you throw them together they “can all just get along.”

Such is the mentality confronting those who value native ecosystems and professional managers committed to (or at least responsible for) protecting and restoring species fading from this tired old planet.

Ted Williams has written about conservation issues for this magazine for almost three decades.