COLUMN: Non-native fish are the reality in Montana

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Two weeks ago I wrote a column on the fine sport of fishing for northern pike. At least one reader strongly disagreed with my column. His letter to the editor blasted me from all sides. I suspect if that writer were in the White House, I would be on my way to Guantanamo.

Well, welcome to America, where each of us has the right to express our opinions. I have read my column a couple of times and have re-read that letter to the editor. I would sum up our differences simply by saying I am a realist. My column was about the realities of fishing and fish management in 2016. Last Sunday, my wife and I had a good morning of fishing on Crystal Lake. We caught kokanee salmon and rainbow trout. Both of those fishes are non-native to Montana and to Crystal Lake. Crystal Lake has no creeks flowing into it or out of it. I suspect when settlers first arrived back in the 1880s and 1890s, Crystal Lake was fishless.

No one probably knows how fish first got into Crystal Lake, but I suspect it was the old Montana Fish and Game Department. I do know they have been stocking it for the last 40-50 years. During our 40 years of fishing Crystal Lake, weíve had some really great fishing. It was traditionally stocked with a strain of non-native rainbow trout out of the Arlee Fish Hatchery and kokanee salmon from somewhere. That stocking program provided a great fishery.

Then, Fish, Wildlife and Parks tried an experiment to stop stocking Arlee non-native rainbow and stock the redband rainbow that is native to Northwest Montana, but not to Crystal Lake. With that change in stocking, fishing in terms of number and size of fish caught by anglers crashed.

Last Saturday, I attended a meeting with many other cabin owners in the Thompson Chain of Lakes area with our local fish biologist. He explained the rationale for that change in fish stocking, but couldnít really explain why the native redband rainbow didnít do well in Crystal Lake, while the Arlee stain of rainbow thrived. Perhaps the native redband trout is just a survival wimp. The stateís motives for planting a native trout in Crystal were noble. But it just didnít work. Two years ago I sat in the office of the FWPís regional supervisor in Kalispell. He has a Ph.D. in fish management. He said, ďÖ unfortunately fishery science has not progressed to the point that we can accurately predict the outcome of some of our fish management actions.Ē I really respected his total honesty.

There are some folks in Western Montana that wish we could turn the native species clock back to the 1880s. That canít happen and wonít happen. It is biologically and economically impossible. With the advent of high-speed surface transportation in the late 1800s, the railroads, man now had the opportunity to transplant fish hundreds or thousands of miles.

Fish and game officials led that fish relocation effort. They, with the full support of the fishing public, dumped every imaginable fish species in nearly every body of water in Western Montana. Most of those fish plants failed, but some took hold. Today, we must learn to live with the benefits and consequences of those past fish-stocking efforts. Bucket biology, the illegal planting of fish by the general public, continues today. Today, non-native fish provide most of the fish caught by anglers in Montana. If we only had native fish to catch, fishing opportunity and Montanaís multi-hundred-million-dollar fishing industry would crash.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks has documented over 600 recent cases of bucket biology. I suspect that bucket biology will continue until there is acceptance of the stateís fish management by the general fishing public.

I sometimes say that if I were the czar of FWP, I would lay off half the biologists and hire a bunch of socialists to replace them. The department needs to better understand the people they serve. As an agency, Fish, Wildlife and Parks tends to make a lot of folks mad. Some of those disgruntled folks take management action into their own hands. Hence, bucket biology. The solution is understanding and communication, not more law enforcement.

In summary, non-native fish are here to stay, so letís manage them to provide beneficial use for our citizens. If the public really wants to stop bucket biology, then I believe the answer is to improve communications and understanding between all anglers and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

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