Comprehensive effort aimed to protect native species
Glacier National Park announced Thursday it has begun drafting a comprehensive plan to address the impacts of climate change and aquatic invasive species throughout the park’s vast network of lakes, ponds, wetlands and streams.
The park is requesting public comments and suggestions by May 11 for the Fish and Aquatics Plan, which it hopes to finalize by April 2017.
“We’ve been talking about this for a couple of years now,” Chris Downs, Glacier’s fisheries manager, said Friday. “This is a desire to take a bigger-picture view of what the threats are, what the resources are that we have to put toward those threats and how to prioritize and communicate those priorities.”
He added it will be modeled after Yellowstone National Park’s native fish conservation plan, but with an additional focus on climate change impacts.
The scoping document identifies a framework for the park’s proposed action and two alternatives, along a “no action” alternative, under which no new plan would be established.
Many of the proposed management actions focus on protecting Glacier’s 17 native fish species from the pressures of non-native fish, which the park stocked in its waters for decades before ending the practice in the 1970s.
As is the case throughout the region, the park’s native populations of federally protected bull trout have suffered from years of predation and out-competition by introduced lake trout. Bull trout are also at risk for hybridization with non-native brook trout, producing less resilient and often infertile offspring.
The park’s populations of westslope cutthroat trout, which the state classifies as a species of concern, have also declined due to lake trout predation and competition and can hybridize with introduced rainbow and Yellowstone cutthroat trout.
Under its proposed action, the park would remove non-native fish using netting, trapping, angling, electrofishing and treatment of some lakes with rotenone — a toxin that wildlife managers use to eradicate fish populations while causing minimal harm to other animals.
Following rotenone treatment, lakes are typically restocked with native fish. But as part of the park’s mission to conserve the natural ecosystems that prevailed prior to the establishment of Glacier National Park in 1910, some lakes would remain devoid of fish.
One of the alternative plans would only allow mechanical means to reduce fish populations while the other would only permit rotenone treatment.
Climate change also poses special risks for the variety of delicate ecosystems throughout Glacier.
Park officials anticipate higher temperatures, the amount and timing of precipitation and runoff and increased natural disturbances such as wildfires, floods and droughts to disrupt many of its habitats.
Fish and other aquatic animals are expected to migrate to cooler upstream waters and to higher elevations, making the park an important refuge for retreating wildlife species.
Re-establishing native lake ecosystems could also benefit species such as bull trout, which require a year-round supply of cold water to survive.
Downs pointed to Harrison Lake, in the southern portion of the park, as a likely high-priority candidate for restoration.
“It’s a big, deep lake with a cold, sizable stream network that in the absence of non-native fish would be a tremendous climate change refugia for native fish,” he said.
The proposal also includes removing some existing fish passage barriers while constructing others to prevent the migration of invasive species. It is also intended to address the risk of new invasive species introductions, such as zebra mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil.
Downs said the plan will provide a blueprint for prioritizing and developing future conservation plans for aquatic habitats while avoiding the time and cost required to produce environmental impact statements for each project.
“Part of the idea of doing this is we can more efficiently use our time and resources by having done the planning up front, as opposed to reacting” to new threats, he said. “We’d rather do this EIS at a bigger scale. It’s more complex, with potentially controversial aspects, but we can do it now to fit future projects within the sideboards of the analysis of what’s been done.”
The scoping document does not address funding for new projects, aside from the possibility of requiring fishing licenses to help provide stable funding for long-term restoration projects, such as ongoing removals of lake trout in Quartz and Logging lakes.
“The resources to do that are becoming increasingly difficult to come by. Right now we’re spending $80,000 to $100,000 per year, per project to reduce lake trout,” Downs said.
Park officials will hold a public scoping meeting May 5 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., at the Flathead Forest Supervisor’s Office, located at 650 Wolfpack Way in Kalispell.
A scoping meeting will also be held May 4 in Great Falls.
After the public scoping period ends May 11, the park will use the comments received to develop a draft environmental impact statement for the alternatives by next spring.
Following another public comment period, the park will make any changes it deems necessary to the plan, with the final version expected in April 2018.
Comments can be mailed to: Superintendent, Glacier National Park, Attn: Fish and Aquatics Plan/EIS, P.O. Box 128, West Glacier, Montana 59936.
To submit public comments online or view the scoping document, visit parkplanning.nps.gov/FishAquaticsPlanEIS.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.