Just over a week after the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes decided to expand an environmental review process for a controversial lake trout netting project on Flathead Lake, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has withdrawn its support for the process.
The conflict came up at a Flathead Reservation Fish and Wildlife Board meeting in Missoula that was teleconferenced to Fish, Wildlife and Parks offices in Kalispell and Helena Wednesday.
At the meeting, tribal officials announced that an environmental assessment process launched in 2010 will be converted to a more exhaustive environmental impact statement process under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Rose Leach, the tribes’ NEPA expert, said she recommended the change because models in the review are evaluating a lake trout suppression effort that could last for 50 years, much longer than the term originally being evaluated.
The suppression work, which would involve the use of gill or trap nets on the lake, is aimed at reducing the non-native lake trout population for the benefit of native bull trout and cutthroat trout.
But the expanded review also was announced as the tribes prepared to submit documents to a special panel that evaluates projects seeking fish and wildlife mitigation funding from the Bonneville Power Administration.
But Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials concluded they cannot support the proposed environmental impact statement in its present form.
“Please remove our name from the document to be submitted to the Bonneville Power Administration’s Independent Scientific Review Panel,” stated Bruce Rich, the agency’s fisheries bureau chief, in a letter to the tribes on March 1. “Our staff believes that the draft EIS, in its present state, is incomplete in both content and process.”
The letter states that the tribes have yet to provide the state — a co-manager of the lake — with a full draft of the review documents, yet the tribes plan to submit those documents for funding review with the state listed as a full partner in the project.
Rich said there is concern that doing so will make Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks appear to have a “pre-decisional” commitment to the netting project before the public has a chance to adequately engage in the process.
At the Missoula meeting, Region One Supervisor Jim Satterfield further explained the state’s reservations.
Only three public meetings were held for environmental assessment scoping in 2010, and Satterfield said there are questions about the relevance of those meetings to the new impact-study process, considering how the process has evolved since then.
According to “A Citizens Guide to the NEPA Process,” if an environmental review is elevated to an full environmental impact study, the proposal must be published in the Federal Register, followed by another round of “public scoping and appropriate public involvement,” followed by a draft environmental impact study and another period of public comment.
Barry Hansen, a tribal fisheries biologist, said the tribes aim to release a draft EIS by June, and a final study by September.
Satterfield gave several examples of where state officials believe the environmental review comes up short. An economic analysis that is required with an environmental impact study hasn’t been conducted, he said, and the state is interested in how removing 140,000 lake trout per year (under one of the proposed alternatives) would impact sport fishing on Flathead Lake.
The lake is one of the state’s most popular fishing destinations and a “significant portion of the economic engine of the Flathead Valley,” he said.
The state also wants an analysis of the expected benefits or harm to native bull trout and cutthroat trout from lake trout removal efforts. Netting, for instance, can lead to “by-catch” bull trout mortalities.
Removing lake trout may cause another boon in the lake’s mysis shrimp population, which in turn could lead to impacts on zooplankton and increased algae blooms in the lake.
Those issues and others are being evaluated in the final stages of the EIS process, Hansen said.
“We didn’t want to see the document submitted to the ISRP until it’s complete, and it’s not complete,” Satterfield said.
Hansen responded by saying that the review panel does not expect a finalized document, and in fact may want to make suggestions for a more complete document.
In a letter responding to the state, tribal fish and wildlife manager Tom McDonald said the tribes’ intent “is to get the best technical review of the science amassed for the NEPA document to date. We purposely want to obtain such reviews early in the process so they can be incorporated and better inform our decision.”
But those critical of the project from the beginning now question the willingness to accept information that may undermine it.
“I’m accusing them of cherry-picking” data, said Bob Orsua, owner of the Mo’ Fisch fishing charter business.
Orsua said those involved in the process, which he has followed closely, have shown no interest in catch rates of the nine charter businesses that operate on the lake. The average catch rate for lake trout has dropped from 14 fish per charter in 1995 to three fish per charter in 2010.
Orsua attributes the declining rate to the aggressive “Mack Days” fishing events held in spring and fall, which give anglers financial incentives to remove and kill thousands of lake trout.
According to tribal officials, the events have been highly successful and popular, but they have not been adequate to reduce the lake trout population to a desirable level.
But Orsua challenges that position, saying that a “desirable” population hasn’t even been defined; that’s what the EIS process is supposed to determine.
Chuck Hunt, president of Flathead Wildlife Inc., said he believes the economic impacts of gill and trap netting lake trout from Flathead Lake are obvious.
“It will become a dead zone” for sport anglers, he said, because the lake trout population will be devastated, leaving threatened bull trout that can’t be legally caught and catch-and-release only rules for cutthroat trout.