A project to remove rainbow trout from a wilderness stream to protect native cutthroat trout in Yellowstone National Park is being postponed following delays generated by Montana legislation and a reexamination of fisheries statutes.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks — in collaboration with the Custer Gallatin National Forest and the National Park Service — had proposed beginning to remove rainbow trout from Buffalo Creek in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness this summer. The project called for applying chemicals to kill the fish. The stream would eventually be restocked with native cutthroat.
During the recent Legislature, Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, introduced Senate Bill 360 that proposed such fish removal projects require the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to consider replacing the lost fishing opportunity with similar prospects elsewhere.Rainbow trout removal project proposed on wilderness stream that flows into Yellowstone
Walleyes Unlimited of Montana and the Flathead chapter of the group were supporters of the measure. Although claiming the bill was not anti-native fish, Bob Gilbert of Walleyes Unlimited identified the removal of brook trout from Soda Butte Creek in 2015 as an example of lost fishing opportunities for locals. The stream, a tributary to the Lamar River — along with Slough and Buffalo creeks — was restocked with Yellowstone cutthroat trout.
Gilbert said FWP needed to protect nonnative brown, brook and rainbow trout for Montana anglers.
Opponents to the measure included Clayton Elliott of Montana Trout Unlimited who called the measure “burdensome” for the commission. Mike Bias, executive director of the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, and a former fisheries scientist who worked on fish restoration on the Big Hole River, said it was “tantamount to taking a giant step backward in fish management.”
Although the details behind Lang’s bill were eventually scrapped, SB 360 does ask FWP to review its fisheries management plan by Jan. 1, 2023. Yet the discussion over SB 360 prompted FWP’s new director, Hank Worsech, to request an in-house legal review of statutes regarding fish removals.
During a May 18 Fish and Wildlife Commission work session, Worsech said he requested the review to be more “transparent” with the public, adding that commission reviews of fish removal projects would give them higher visibility.
After reviewing applicable statutes, FWP legal counsel Becky Dockter said in her opinion that all such fish removal projects must be approved by the commission.
Commissioner Pat Byorth, a former fisheries biologist for FWP, challenged her “new interpretation” of the statute saying the wording seemed to leave the decision up to the commission rather than requiring the group’s approval.
He also questioned the timing of the review, since most fish removal projects are set to begin in the summer. He called the new review requirements politically motivated, a claim Worsech strongly denied.
FWP Fish Management supervisor Eric Roberts stressed during the work session that the agency isn’t anti-brook trout, even if they are often the target of fish removals. With native fish projects the intent is to provide a better fishery than the one already there since natives are often better suited to those environments, he added.
As it now stands, the commission won’t consider the 22 proposed fish removal projects until its June 24 meeting. Because there are three agencies involved in the intricate Buffalo Creek project, the partners decided this week to put off the work for year, said Todd Koel, fisheries biologist for the park.
The Custer Gallatin National Forest has not yet released its decision notice for the project, but had deferred to the FWP environmental assessment.
“We are in the midst of reviewing comments and using those to determine if this falls within a categorical exclusion or environmental assessment,” wrote Mike Thom, Gardiner District ranger, in an email. “We did make the determination based on timelines and clearances that implementation will not occur this summer of 2021. I wouldn’t anticipate a decision for several more months.”
A Missoula wilderness group has opposed the work since FWP’s plan calls for helicoptering in equipment and using poison to kill the fish. Wilderness Watch said the project violates the spirit of the Wilderness Act and also called on the Forest Service to prepare its own environmental assessment of the work.
The Buffalo Creek project is meant to protect native fish in Slough Creek where rainbow trout have interbred with native cutthroat trout. Rainbow trout were stocked in Hidden Lake in 1935 and were then flushed downstream into Buffalo Creek and on to Slough Creek.
Yellowstone’s staff built a barrier to prevent the trout from moving up into Slough Creek meadows, a popular fly-fishing area. But Buffalo Creek could still pump trout downstream into the Lamar and Yellowstone rivers.
“When it comes to rainbow trout mitigation, the Buffalo Creek project is the biggest and most-needed we have,” Koel told The Billings Gazette in March.
“Outside of Yellowstone Lake it’s the most important conservation effort we’re engaged in,” he added.
Buffalo Creek was fishless prior to being stocked, but given the region’s high altitude and cool waters it is seen as providing a coldwater refuge for the native species as the climate warms.
“High elevation refuges like the Buffalo Creek watershed will likely be the last strongholds for many native trout,” FWP’s environmental assessment noted. “Forty-three stream miles in the watershed have a 90 to 100% probability of remaining thermally suitable for Yellowstone cutthroat trout by 2040.”