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Cutthroat controversy
Courtesy of the Flathead National Forest The South Fork of the Flathead River is one of the last strongholds of the native westslope cutthroat trout.

In northwestern Montana, a wild fish is struggling in a wilderness.

Brian Marotz wants to protect one of the purest strains of native stocks of westslope cutthroat trout in the wild. The fish live in the headwaters of the South Fork of the Flathead River drainage.

"It's the last remaining stronghold of pure westslope cutthroat trout in existence," said Marotz, a fisheries biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Kalispell.

But to protect the fish, the department has suggested poisoning some lakes in the Bob Marshall and Great Bear wilderness areas where nonnative fish have been stocked. The fear is that the nonnatives may trickle down into the native fishery and breed with the westslope cutthroat, fouling the gene pool. To prevent such a scenario, the agency would use rotenone, a chemical extracted from a root, to poison the nonnative fish.

Using a poison in high mountain wilderness lakes is enough to ignite an environmentalist's wrath, but that's only part of the proposal.

To transport the poison and new fish to the high mountain lakes, Fish, Wildlife and Parks is considering using helicopters. Once dumped in the water, the poison would be stirred into the lake waters with a small motorboat.

After the nonnatives - such as rainbow trout or rainbow-cutthroat hybrids - have been killed off, genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout would be restocked. A wild fish - Montana's state fish - would return to the wilderness.

George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch in Missoula, is not too keen on the restocking proposal. He doesn't want to see motorized equipment used in the wilderness and he opposes restocking lakes that initially did not contain fish.

"The wilderness is not a place where we go in and manipulate things to meet our needs," Nickas said. "Once it's designated wilderness you let nature manage it."

Wilderness Watch posted an alert on its Web site attacking the proposal. "Removing one introduced species and replacing it with another continues to detract from the area's wilderness character," the story said.

Even the American Wildlands conservation group, based in Bozeman, which has fought to gain threatened species status for westslope cutthroat trout, takes issue with Fish, Wildlife and Park's suggestion to use helicopters and motorboats.

"We're supportive of the restoration project," said Rob Ament, Wildlands executive director. "But there might be more sensitive ways to proceed." Ament also said American Wildlands would prefer to see lakes that were fishless before initial stocking return to their fishless condition.A little fish history The westslope cutthroat stocking project is being funded by the Bonneville Power Administration. The stocking is part of a reparation program to compensate for the construction of Hungry Horse Dam, completed in 1952. The dam sits near the mouth of the South Fork of the Flathead River, part of the upper Columbia River system.

Because the federal agency is funding the program, it is in charge of conducting the environmental assessment. The draft document should be available to the public later this month or early in May, according to BPA.

Although the funding will come from the federal government, oversight and execution of the program is in the hands of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in concert with the Forest Service.

Officials recognize this is no easy task. The cutthroat is near and dear to Montanans. Meriwether Lewis first described the westslope in 1805 while traveling up the Missouri River during his exploration of the West for President Thomas Jefferson.

More recently, Montana recognized the westslope as a fish of special concern. In 1999, the state wrote an agreement to conserve westslope cutthroat and created management objectives to ensure the fish's survival. Fish, Wildlife and Parks' recovery plan for the westslope cutthroat seeks to establish 10 healthy populations in five drainages, each at least 50 miles long.

Right now, the fish's toehold in Montana is a bit tenuous. According to Ken McDonald, special projects bureau chief for FWP, the westslope is found in only 30 to 40 percent of its historical range. The fish is especially threatened east of the divide in Montana, where it occupies only about 5 percent of its historical range.

At one time, westslope cutthroat trout inhabited all major river drainages west of Montana's Continental Divide and the Missouri River drainage as far east as Fort Benton. Other strains of cutthroat are found across the West.

But over time, the fish has been crowded out, eaten or inbred with more aggressive species stocked by humans since the early 1900s. The fish has also seen its habitat diminished or altered by the side-effects of logging, grazing and mining.Breaking it down by genes Prior to the 1970s, the westslope and its cousin, the Yellowstone cutthroat, were thought to be the same species. But with new technology, fish biologists can more closely define pure strains of westslope vs. those that have interbred. As a result, biologists have determined that the South Fork of the Flathead River has one of the purest remaining strains left in the wild.

"A lot of people don't realize what a gem that population is, when you look at it from a native perspective," said Marotz, the fisheries biologist. "The movement of nonnative fish has led to the gradual erosion of the native species population."

Why is it important to have genetically pure strains of fish? Fisheries managers say that the westslope has specifically adapted over thousands of years to Montana's quirky environment.

Rainbow and brown trout might not be able to handle a 20-degree change in the temperature, said Bruce Farling, with Montana's Trout Unlimited office. "But the cutthroat evolved in this region with our squirrely climate."

Another reason to protect the westslope cutthroat is because they are so rare and such a great sport fish. Anglers find cutthroat are gullible, rising greedily to large dry flies presented by even the most novice fly casters.

For outfitters guiding anglers into the South Fork, the chance to catch 20 to 100 westslope cutthroat trout in a day is a big selling point.

Eureka outfitter Steve Hawkins, who's been guiding in the South Fork for 30 years, said he's all for protection of westslope cutthroat trout. "I don't want anything to come along and jeopardize that (fishery)," he said. "We need to keep some of these areas strictly native habitat. If they list native cutthroat as an endangered species, then you won't be able to fish anywhere on that river."

Hawkins said he has no problem with a helicopter coming in to deliver poison and fish, and doesn't think his clients would mind much, either.

"Whatever is easiest on the land and most efficient," he said.Working in the wilderness Marotz said using a helicopter is the best way to do the job quickly and with fewer people.

"It would be less obtrusive because it would happen faster," he said.

Marotz said the BPA's environmental assessment would set out guidelines for deciding whether to use a helicopter or horses to pack supplies into the wilderness.

"From my perspective, though, it's a lot less expensive and obtrusive to get it over with quickly," Marotz said. He said using pack stock would take more time and people.

Wilderness regulations outlaw the use of "all wheeled mechanisms (except wheelchairs) including motorized equipment, mechanized equipment, bicycles, wagons, carts and wheelbarrows. All landings of aircraft (except at designated airstrips) and hang gliders are prohibited."

Helicopters and airplanes have been grandfathered in for use in some wilderness areas to fight fires and to stock high mountain lakes with fish. The fish-stocking flights are typically made in the spring, before most backcountry users arrive. The preferred time for the poisoning would be in the late fall when lakes are low, the water's oxygen content is reduced and fewer people are around.

"Some of these lakes, if we're going to be effective, we have to consider mechanized use because of the distance and volume of poison," said Deb Mucklow, the district ranger at Spotted Bear, near the mouth of the South Fork of the Flathead.

If pack stock were used, some of the lakes would require new trails, she said.

"We're trying to balance the impact to resources," Mucklow said.Poisoned waters Even without involving helicopters and wilderness, past fish poisoning proposals have generated controversy.

Cherry Creek, which runs through media magnate Ted Turner's property southwest of Bozeman, was proposed for poisoning and restocking of westslope cutthroat. But a local group opposed the plan, taking the state to court to stop the project.

The Montana Mining Association jumped on the bandwagon saying the state was sanctioning degradation of a public water supply. A district court judge recently ruled against the claims.

"There's always a segment concerned abut using toxins, and in the wilderness? That sounds mad, insane," Marotz said. "But we're talking about a derivative of a root. It degrades very rapidly. It only harms gill-breathing organisms."

Marotz said bug life is quick to rebound, and salamanders, frogs and other reptiles are largely unaffected.

Trout Unlimited's Farling said the organization has seriously studied poisons and is comfortable with fishery agencies using them in a safe, limited manner.

Although the poison doesn't affect the reptile wildlife, federal studies in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest have suggested that stocking high lakes with fish may change the lakes' food chains. Zooplankton and some salamander larvae may become scarce in stocked lakes, studies have shown. Removing trout from a few lakes boosted the number of salamanders.

But Marotz said there's no proof that removal of fish would increase the number of frogs and salamanders.A long-term project As an alternative to poisoning the lakes, FWP could approve "swamping" the lakes with pure westslope cutthroat. Swamping is a way to raise the genetic purity of the resident fish by planting more pure-strain trout. But swamping is less than effective at ensuring pure-strain trout.

Under the proposal, about 24 lakes are being considered for restocking. Of those, about 14 lakes are in the Bob Marshall and Great Bear wilderness areas. Some of the lakes are located in the heavily utilized Jewell Basin hiking area, atop the Swan Mountains, as well.

"A lot of them are the popular lakes, like Clayton Lake," Marotz said.

Marotz said if all goes well the project would take about 10 years to complete, tackling two or three lakes a year.

Farling, of Trout Unlimited, said he's cautioning Fish, Wildlife and Parks to go slow. "Whether stocking these particular lakes is the best idea right now is still open to question," he said.

He said TU is also advocating using nonmechanized means to get the job done. "There may have to be some compromises," he said.

Marotz acknowledged that the project raises some people's hackles.

"There's an emotional attachment to Montana's state fish," he said. "When you see how productive the South Fork of the Flathead River is considering its low nutrient content, it's a resource to protect.

"That's why we feel this is one of the most important things we can do to protect and sustain native westslope cutthroat trout into the future." - these trout are from sixteen to twenty three inches in length, precisely resemble our mountain or speckled trout in form and the position of their fins, but the specks on these are of a deep black instead of the red or goald coulour of those common to the U.' States. These are furnished long sharp teeth on the pallet and tongue and have generally a small dash of red on each side behind the front ventral fins; the flesh is of a pale yellowish red, or when in good order, of a rose red."

- Meriwether Lewis.

(Journal entry of June 13, 1805,describing a westslope cutthroat trout taken from the Missouri River near present day Great Falls)

To comment: The Bonneville Power Administration will release the environmental assessment of the westslope cutthroat trout project sometime this month or next. A public comment period will follow the release of the environmental assessment. To comment, write to Colleen Spiering, Environmental Project Manager, Bonneville Power Administration, P.O. Box 3621, Portland, OR 97208-3621. You can also telephone (503) 230-5756 or e-mail caspiering@bpa.gov to be put on the list for notification of the document's release. When the EA is released, it will be posted on BPA's Web site at www.bpa.gov.

Brett French can be reached at 657-1387, or at french@billingsgazette.com.

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