The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes
completed an initial phase of gill netting on Montana's Flathead Lake during
the last two weeks of April, catching 5,232 lake trout.
The netting is part of a larger effort to
suppress lake trout numbers for the benefit of bull trout and other native
Other suppression methods include random
recreational angling and the Mack Days fishing events sponsored by the tribes.
This spring’s Mack Days event, which concludes on Saturday, is expected to
result in the removal of more than 30,000 lake trout.
An environmental analysis approved by the
tribes set an annual harvest target of 90,000 to 100,000 lake trout, or about a
30 percent increase over harvest estimates for the last few years.
In addition to the 5,232 lake trout that were
netted, there was a by-catch of 2,487 lake whitefish. One bull trout was
inadvertently captured and immediately released.
The netting was conducted within the
constraints of a permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, limiting
the “incidental take” or capture of bull trout.
Wade Fredenberg, the service’s bull trout
recovery coordinator, reviewed the netting effort and monitored it for
compliance with the permit.
“The tribes did what they were permitted to do
under ESA [Endangered Species Act], and because they followed the best
available science the results were exactly what we expected — high lake trout
catch with virtually no bull trout by-catch,” Fredenberg said. “As a result, we
continue to give our full support to this adaptive effort to incrementally
reduce lake trout numbers.”
There will be a fall Mack Days event and more
netting if necessary to achieve the target of 90,000 to 100,000 lake trout.
Tribal officials emphasize that suppression
efforts are being carried out under a flexible management implementation plan
subject to annual reviews and course corrections. An analysis of this year’s
suppression results will be conducted early next year followed by a public
meeting in February 2015. The harvest target and planned methods for next
year’s suppression efforts will be made public in March 2015.
Gill netting for lake trout suppression has
been controversial since it was first proposed. Critics contend it will
decimate Flathead Lake’s lake trout population, the main sport fishery on the lake,
with economic consequences for the region. They have also raised concerns about
unintended consequences that could result from a diminished lake trout
population, such as unexpected changes in the lake’s food web that could result
in water quality degradation.
Flathead Lake is projected to reach an
elevation of 2,890 feet by the end of May, and there is potential for the lake
to be held just below its full pool elevation of 2,893 by June 15, the target
date for the lake to be at full pool.
Representatives from PPL Montana, the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and the
Bonneville Power Administration recently conferred about current and projected
operations at Kerr Dam.
PPL operates the dam at the direction of the
Corps, based on runoff forecasts, snowpack, weather conditions and other
factors. The Corps is advising that the snowpack above the Flathead Basin is at
148 percent of average, which may prompt the need for the lake to be held below
full pool by June 15.
“Because of the potential for flooding as a
result of above average snowpack and the potential for localized precipitation,
the Corps has instructed PPL that the lake elevation may need to be at a level
less than full pool by June 15, which would be less full than in years with
normal snowpack and precipitation,” a joint press release states.
The lake is currently at 2,888 feet, or nearly
five feet shy of full pool, and outflows at Kerr Dam have been around 26,900
cubic feet per second.
The dam’s operations will be adjusted as the
lake’s refill schedule develops.
“The timing of when Flathead Lake will achieve
its full pool elevation of 2,893 feet is unknown at this time,” the release