With all the fish dying statewide, why is killing more trout a top priority for the state?

August 14, 2021 4:58 am

Bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) have shown dramatic declines across the contiguous United States and, today, are known or predicted to inhabit watersheds in only 45 percent of their historic range. This documented decline of bull trout led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to formally list the species as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1999. This listing included its historical range in the contiguous United States. One population of significance interest is the distinct populations segment found in the St. Mary and Belly river drainages in Montana and Canada. In 2016, Montana Fish and Wildlife biologists sampled several streams in the St. Mary Drainage to monitor bull trout populations. Additionally, staff have been working with Bureau of Reclamation to work towards providing fish passage and entrainment at Reclamation’s St Mary Diversion. (Photo by USFS via Flickr)

Apparently The American Fisheries Society doesn’t approve of citizens criticizing the plan by Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to use rotenone to poison all the fish in 67 miles of streams and lakes in and flowing out of the Scapegoat Wilderness Area. But considering those lakes and streams are just upstream of federally-designated Critical Habitat for bull trout in the North Fork of Montana’s Blackfoot River – and the past record of poison and plant projects in Montana – criticizing the project is not only justified, is it necessary?
To start with, the project is already being challenged in federal court. It proposes at least 67 helicopter trips into the Scapegoat Wilderness Area, to haul in and operate a motor boat, generator, and the poison. So if you were planning on entering the “untrammeled by man” wilderness where all mechanized use is prohibited, your experience might be diminished by the choppers whack, whack, whacking overhead.
Then there’s the reality that poisoning entire water bodies – and especially flowing streams — severely alters biodiversity and causes a broad loss of taxa and species from those ecosystems. Basically, the rotenone kills not just the target trout, but also the aquatic insects upon which the stream’s ecosystem relies, as well as any gilled amphibians unfortunate enough to be there when the poison is applied.
While restoring native species is certainly a worthwhile goal, focusing on one species of trout to the detriment of countless other organisms, ecosystem structure, and biodiversity as a whole can impair the fisheries and wildlife of the Scapegoat Wilderness for a long time. If this summer has taught us anything, it’s that with climate change induced extremes, expecting “normal” conditions of streamflow and temperatures to continue into the future is speculation, at best. There is simply no guarantee that the “cold and clean” water these native species evolved with will even exist given that many of Montana’s trout streams have already been closed down due to low flows and lethal temperatures for coldwater species.
The suggestion that poison and plant projects in the past have been without problems may have been intended to calm the public, but it is simply incorrect. In Montana’s Cherry Creek, the rotenone persisted well beyond the intended kill zone and poisoned 1,000 -1,500 trout all the way to the Madison River. Despite the Society’s claims that rotenone does not get in groundwater, a 2014 Bozeman Chronicle article noted that when questioned about why the rotenone did not work as intended, a fisheries biologist said: “One possibility is that the poison got into groundwater and re-emerged farther down in Cherry Creek.”
Moreover, these fish belong to the public, not a state agency. Yet, in 2008 Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commissioner Victor Workman, who oversees the department on behalf of the public, tried to stop the use of rotenone in Montana because “his concern about potential environmental harm from rotenone dispersed in lakes increased when a Fish, Wildlife and Parks official told him that ‘viewing of this project is not for the faint of heart. It looks like a war zone. If it’s alive, it’s dead.’”
Workman was unsuccessful and, once again, agency bureaucrats simply overruled public concern.
Montana’s fisheries agency already has its hands full of pressing issues. The state’s world-famous streams are reduced to trickles, the brown trout population is crashing, heat-induced fungus coats many trout in our major rivers. With so many trout dying already, it’s a mystery why killing more trout would be a priority for Montana’s fisheries agency.
It’s also worth remembering that although the American Fisheries Society likes to tout its professionalism, its members were among those that destroyed the outstanding salmon fishery in Flathead Lake by planting non-native mysis shrimp. Then they dumped millions of hatchery salmon in the lake to try to rectify their incredible ecosystem disruption only to fail utterly at that, too. Likewise, Colorado hatcheries were known to be infected with whirling disease but their biologists believed whirling was a “hatchery disease” that wouldn’t survive in the wild. They were dead wrong, the disease “mysteriously” showed up in Montana and decimated the rainbow trout in the Upper Madison River for years.

Even in Montana’s other poison and plant projects, multiple poisonings have been required year after year because they didn’t exterminate the target species in their initial attempts. We have no reason to believe that won’t happen on the North Fork of the Blackfoot and they’ll wind up poisoning the stream for years and years to come.

No matter what the American Fisheries Society says about how safe the poison is that their members plan to dump in Montana’s rivers and lakes, the record is long and filled with mistaken assumptions that produced dire consequences. Restoring native species is certainly worthwhile, but it is long past time for Montana to try other methods besides dumping poisons and toxic chemicals in our precious, clean, wilderness headwater streams, especially ones that flow into bull trout Critical Habitat in the world famous Blackfoot River watershed.
If the American Fisheries  Society wants us to believe they don’t make mistakes, it’s worth remembering their members planted the non-native trout in formerly non-fish bearing streams and lakes in the Scapegoat Wilderness Area which they now want to poison.  Our hope is that they won’t continue to make mistakes, like poisoning out the North Fork of the Blackfoot with potentially dire consequences in our rapidly changing climate.
Thanks to a pending lawsuit by Wilderness Watch, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and other plaintiffs as well as efforts to alert the public through the media to the potential problems with this project, the Forest Service decided to pull the project.  As the Forest Service notification read: “The project decision included approving a Pesticide Use Proposal for the use of rotenone in the Scapegoat Wilderness and authorization of the following activities normally prohibited in wilderness: use of generators, boat motors, and motorized pumps to disperse rotenone; use of helicopters to transport equipment, chemicals, and fish; and development of spike camps and a radio repeater.”
Mike Garrity is the Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

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