Montana sportsmen: Utah lawmaker threatens the future of hunting and fishing

mountain lake

HELENA MT – Montana sportsmen say a proposal by a Utah Rep. Rob Bishop to gut the 50-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) would be a disaster for the future of hunting and fishing and virtually end America’s most effective tool for conserving habitat and public access.

The Utah Republican today unveiled a first look at his plans to upend the program in the House Natural Resources Committee. Among other things, Bishop’s plan would drastically divert historic funding away from projects that seek to conserve wildlife habitat and expand public access to hunt and fish.

Since 1965, the Land & Water Conservation Fund has helped conserve habitat and open up access across Montana and the rest of the United States. For example, more than half of fishing access sites in Montana were paid for with help from LWCF.

Montanans were quick to condemn Bishop’s move.

“The Land & Water Conservation Fund works for Montanans and all Americans. To say it needs ‘reform’ is an insult to its 50-year track record of success,” said Hannah Ryan, co-chair of the Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “This legislation should be seen what it is: an ideologically driven effort to torpedo America’s most successful conservation and access program.”

“All we need is full funding for LWCF,” said Kathy Hadley, President of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “Reform is just a diversion to run the clock down on the program. At best, it means taking funding away from America’s outdoor families. At worst, it means killing LWCF completely.”

Montana’s entire Congressional Delegation is on the record supporting LWCF, following a hard-fought effort to reauthorize it at the end of the 2015 fiscal year in September. Rep. Bishop was among those who held up reauthorizing the 50-year-old program.

LWCF, which enjoys bipartisan support and relies on offshore oil leases and not taxpayer funding, has invested in everything from playgrounds, swimming pools, and local parks. In Montana, LWCF is responsible for recently opening up public access to the famed Tenderfoot Creek in the Lewis and Clark National Forest and helped pay for most of the state’s fishing access sites, statewide.

“If you are a hunter or angler in Montana, you’ve used an access point purchased through LWCF,” said Jim Vashro a retired Fish, Wildlife, and Parks fisheries biologist and President of Flathead Wildlife in Kalispell, MT. “The program doesn’t need reform, it just needs reauthorization and full funding.”

Although the program isn’t currently authorized, stakeholders are still hopeful for a year-end fix. They don’t see any path forward for Rep. Bishop’s current vision.

“Montana has long been a leader in the effort to fund and reauthorize LWCF,” said Glenn Marx, Executive Director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts. “We will not let attacks on the program distract us from moving forward.”


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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.

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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.