FIGHTING ILLEGAL FISH INTRODUCTIONS

Flyfisherman with rod in hand.

A lot of well-deserved attention has been given to Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) such as zebra mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil. A new species in the wrong place can dramatically alter an aquatic community. But when I talk to anglers about illegal fish introductions I either get a blank look or a shrug of the shoulders. And that’s too bad, because illegal fish are hurting aquatic communities across the state and are costing you opportunity and money.

Although people don’t seem to recognize it, fish are subject to the same laws of nature as deer and humans. The primary law is carrying capacity. A body of water can only raise so many pounds of fish, either lots of little ones or a few big ones. Carrying capacity may fluctuate a little by year due to weather and other limiting factors but it doesn’t change much. Add a new fish species and some existing species has to reduce by a similar amount. No free lunch, no exceptions.

Put another way, it takes about 100 pounds of perch to grow a 10 pound walleye (or 2 five pound walleyes). Many of the illegal fish are top level predators so you give up a lot of opportunity and harvest (perch) to catch a few predators (walleyes). In a typical illegal introduction, the first few fish have few limiting factors and show almost unlimited growth. This leads to early angler predictions of a water full of new state records. As year classes fill in and numbers increase density dependent growth kicks in and fish growth and average size drop dramatically. Often you end up with a water full of stunted fish like perch or brookies.

Many illegal introductions are due to ignorance of the biological rules noted above. Many are careless or thoughtless moves like dumping a bait bucket. But many are planned and result from a sense of entitlement, that a fisherman can have the species he wants anywhere he wants. Private ponds are an increasing source of problems as pond owners try to circumvent private pond rules that protect existing state fisheries.

In Canyon Ferry Reservoir illegal walleyes knocked out the perch fishery and drastically reduced rainbows. Those two fish consistently put Canyon Ferry in the top 3 lakes in the state, what were bucket biologists trying to improve? After an initial boom of big walleyes the fishery is now going through boom and bust cycles. With walleyes, shore and winter fishing have both declined. Rainbows have been stabilized but only by increasing the size of plants from 4 inches to 8 inches. That change costs $200,000 more a year than previous and also takes up most of the supply of catchable rainbows needed elsewhere in the state. Twenty years later and spending the equivalent of more than 11,000 fishing licenses a year, fishing pressure is just back to what it was before walleye.

Still think illegal plants don’t affect you? Avista Corporation owns and operates Noxon Rapids Reservoir on the Clark Fork River just upstream of Idaho. For more than 10 years Avista has been running a native trout (bull and westslope cutthroat) restoration program with FWP and US Fish and Wildlife Service, spending more than $60 million absorbed by ratepayers. Walleye were illegally planted and are now increasing rapidly. Perch, both a popular fishery and a good prey source, are declining rapidly. That puts largemouth and smallmouth bass, which support 7-8 derbies a year to help the economy, at risk. Even more at risk are the cutthroat and bull trout which enter the reservoir through bays where walleyes lie in wait. The Noxon bull trout are important to Montana’s push to delist the species from the Endangered Species Act. The bull trout’s Threatened listing affects many federal and state actions such as timber and natural resource development, road building, dam operations and so forth.

The real key is prevention. Illegal plants are costly to eliminate at best and often can’t be reversed. If you consider the impacts I’ve described above and multiply that by the 250 waters with illegal fish you can see the costs that Montana sustains, both in increased management and lost opportunity. Yet illegal plants continue, I’ve heard of a half dozen more just this summer.

Educate yourself, don’t move live fish which is generally illegal anyway. Talk to your fishing partners and report anyone you know is moving fish through 1-800-TIPMONT (847-6668). Penalties need to be stiffened more to reflect the economic impact of illegal fish plants. AIS programs need to increase the focus on illegal fish which are just as devastating as the other species currently watched for.

It’s time to kick the bucket.

This article by Jim Vashro, MWF Board Member and former regional fisheries manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in northwest Montana for more than 30 years, is a summary of his full article which appeared on page 3 of MWF Fall 2015 Newsletter.

BLOCK MANAGEMENT

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MWF Conservation Director Nick Gevock recently took this nice antelope buck on a Block Management Area in southwestern Montana that opened up thousands of acres of private and public land to public hunting. If you’ve got a photo you’d like to share, send it to mwf@mtwf.org

For thousands of Montanans, as well as hunters from around the country, this upcoming Saturday is the best day of the year. It’s the opening day of Montana’s general deer and elk hunting season, the day that many have for months been waiting for.

There has been a lot of preparation going into the day. Rifles have been carefully sighted in, vehicles packed with tents and gear and supplies to make camp for days or even weeks. And of course hunters have been getting ready by scouting his or her chosen area to find a place with a chance to punch a tag.

Of course that key element – a place to go – is vital for hunting opportunity. Montana is blessed with millions of acres of public land, including national forests, Bureau of Land Management and state Wildlife Management Area lands that are open to all. Montana is also blessed with thousands of generous landowners to welcome hunters to their properties to enjoy the abundance of wildlife we’re blessed with.

Some of them chose to do this through a program that is a model throughout the country, and that is the popular Block Management program. More than 7.5 million acres are enrolled statewide. Through Block Management, landowners allow public hunters onto their lands. In return, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks through fees paid by hunters provides services including enforcement, hunter management and proper signage to help out landowners. And landowners also receive payments to help offset some of the impacts of hunters, including weed management. Each area has its own rules, and hunters need to check with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for more information.

Block Management is mentioned by hunters from throughout the West as a great partnership. Montanans as well as non-resident hunters have come to rely on these areas throughout the state as great hunting opportunity. The program not only opens up private lands, but in many cases also provides access to adjoining public lands. It’s been a huge success, and one that the Montana Wildlife Federation strongly supports.

If you get out on a Block Management area this fall, be sure to thank the landowner. Hunters are still guests on these areas, and without them we’d have less hunting opportunity.

SHEEP STATION OFFERS WIN-WIN OPPORTUNITY

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Hunters could gain access to more than 16,000 acres of prime wildlife habitat in the Centennial Mountains with some basic changes to the way a federal research facility is run.

For over a year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been trying to close the Agricultural Research Service’s Sheep Experiment Station based in Dubois, Idaho. The outdated facility doesn’t conduct the type of high-value research that would benefit the American sheep industry, Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack wrote in a letter to Congress. He proposed moving the station’s research to a facility in Clay Center, Neb., that is equipped with modern labs and with the capacity to do good research. But twice now, Congress has rejected the station’s closure, at the request of the American Sheep Industry which wants the station maintained.

So how does that affect wildlife, habitat and hunters? The station, founded in 1915, includes 16,000 acres in Montana that sit along the Continental Divide in the Centennial Mountains. The area is just south and above the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, squarely in the middle of the “High Divide, a crucial migratory corridor between the Greater Yellowstone region with the wilderness of central Idaho. The area supports abundant wildlife including elk, moose and antelope, as well as numerous birds and nongame species. It also offers incredible hunting opportunity.

This year the National Wildlife Federation analyzed the research conducted at the Sheep Station. It found that the high-alpine meadows of the station are not essential to the research conducted there. NWF, the Montana Wildlife Federation, and the Idaho Wildlife Federation have urged the congressional delegation from Montana and Idaho to resolve the conflicts with wildlife on the station by permanently removing the domestic sheep from the alpine meadows. Those conflicts are real – in recent years a couple grizzly bears have been found dead on the station lands. In addition, the presence of domestic sheep there precludes the opportunity to reestablish native bighorn sheep. And the area is off limits to hunters.

These high meadows, which sit at more than 10,000 feet elevation, aren’t essential to the station’s mission: for the past two summers, the University of Idaho, which owns the sheep grazed there, has not used the meadows.

This is one of the rare cases in which we can have a win-win solution that benefits everyone. Sheep producers can get better research, taxpayers can get a better return on their money, and we can reclaim an important stretch of wildlife habitat. Whatever the future of the Sheep Station is, it shouldn’t include livestock grazing in an area that is so rich in wildlife.

BIG WIN FOR PUBLIC HUNTERS

Front Teton County Road photo by Nick Gevockforweb

Access and opportunity. They’re two things the Montana Wildlife Federation works hard to preserve for Montana hunters and anglers. And they’re two things that will be gained this year when a new access is opened up into an area along the Rocky Mountain Front west of Choteau.

Thanks to the dedication of the Russell Country Sportsmen’s Association, and in particular Randy Knowles, an agreement was reached this summer between RCSA, Teton County, the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and owners of the Salmond Ranch to open up the new access point. The access provides walk-in and horseback access to roughly 50,000 acres of public land in the Deep Creek area along the Front. The access is opening just in time for big game season later this month.
It’s new access. And it opens up a lot of hunting opportunity. The deal was reached after years of negotiations and some legal wrangling over whether Teton County Road 380 was in fact a public right of way. Sportsmen led by RCSA said it was. Members of the Salmond family in 2012 brought a quiet title action on the road, which had been posted no trespassing. Teton County, the DNRC and Knowles intervened, contending it was a public route.

Under the settlement agreement reached in July, the Salmond family agreed to create a new public road along the border with its property that leads to state trust lands. DNRC agreed to pay for a public parking area as well as maintain weeds along the road.

The road will be open from July 1 through Dec. 31. That allows public access for hunting, hiking and other recreational pursuits in summer and fall, while protecting the area during calving and fawning season as well as in the winter when the area is used as winter range.

The parking lot opens access to 1,900 acres of state land, roughly 38,000 acres of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and about 10,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land in the area.

The settlement opens up an area for foot and horseback hunting that was previously only reachable by coming in 25 miles from the north or south. It represents a major win for the sporting public, while still protecting the important wildlife and habitat values along the Front.

It’s important to build on this success and address the issue of gated public roads leading to public land. MWF in the last Legislature brought several bills to improve public access to public land. They failed to pass. But we are going to keep up the effort to solve this problem and bring back these bills. Russell Country Sportsmen, an MWF affiliate, worked tirelessly on this, and deserves credit for this victory. Hopefully it’s a building block for a statewide solution.

The Teton County Road 380 blockage was highlighted last year in Roadblocked & Landlocked, a joint report by Montana Wildlife Federation and Public Land/Water Access Association on unlawful public access closures in Montana.

CONGRESS MUST STOP RAIDING LWCF

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In 1964, Congress enacted the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to set aside a portion of federal revenues from offshore oil and gas development to pay for parks, wildlife habitat, and other natural areas. In other words, the money the federal government makes from developing public resources is dedicated back into conserving other public resources.

LWCF provides a simple, common-sense way to offset some of the impacts of oil and gas drilling and support much-needed land conservation without using taxpayer dollars. It’s no wonder that LWCF was enacted with bipartisan support. Republicans and Democrats all saw the thrifty wisdom in this common-sense program.

Under the law, the LWCF is supposed to provide $900 million a year in funding to purchase land, water, and public access. Over the last 50 years, the fund has accrued a total of about $36 billion from offshore oil and gas drilling.

Unfortunately, Congress has regularly raided the LWCF to cover other government spending. Nearly every year since the program has created, Congress has voted to divert the fund to pay for other government expenditures.

Nobody knows exactly where LWCF dollars have gone, but we do know that less than half of the intended funding has actually ended up in land protection. More than $19 billion of the LWCF has been spent on pork barrel construction projects, unnecessary government programs, and abandoned military hardware – but not the land and water protection the law intended.

Despite the diversion of funds, the LWCF has had some real successes. Over the last 50 years, LWCF has resulted in about $16 billion in funding nationwide, protecting everything from national forest wilderness lands to fishing access sites to urban parks. Over $400 million has gone to Montana projects. These funds have protected important lands in the Blackfoot Valley, on the Rocky Mountain Front, in the Greater Yellowstone region, and all over the state. LWCF has been used to acquire most of Montana’s fishing access sites as well as key parcels that open up large areas of “land-locked” public land for hunting and fishing.

LWCF has meant a lot for Montana. The fund has help provide communities across the state with new municipal pools, golf courses, tennis courts, baseball fields, town parks and trails. It’s also been used in Montana to preserve forest lands that help protect the water supplies that we depend on for drinking water and irrigation. LWCF is used to obtain public access sites to our rivers and public lands and has been crucial to protecting hunting, fishing, backpacking and every other outdoor activity that makes Montana such a great place to live. In addition to supporting our quality of life, the program has fueled the Treasure State’s $6 billion outdoor recreation economy.

Fortunately for us, both Senator Jon Tester and Senator Steve Daines have expressed support for LWCF, and they have both cosponsored Senate Bill 338, which permanently authorizes the program. That’s a great start. Senator Tester has gone a step further and also cosponsored Senate Bill 890, which both permanently authorizes the fund and locks in the $900 million in annual spending, protecting it from future budget raids.

Just imagine what we could accomplish if Congress stopped hijacking LWCF and allowed all of the funds to go to their intended purpose. With a 50 year track record, this program doesn’t need any debate, evaluation, or “reform.” The partially-funded LWCF has done great things for Montanans and all Americans. The time has come for our elected officials to restore full funding to LWCF.

Kathy Hadley lives in Deer Lodge. She is president of the Montana Wildlife Federation.
A version of this article appeared in the Helena IR. You can see that version here

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Alec Underwood

Federal Conservation Campaigns Director

Alec is responsible for developing and implementing MWF’s federal conservation advocacy and policy campaigns to protect Montana’s fish and wildlife. He spends most of his free time hunting big game and fly fishing Montana’s cherished trout rivers. He also enjoys backpacking, skiing, photography, and woodworking. 

alec@mtwf.org