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Salish/Kootenai Tribes Pull 5,232 Lake Trout From Flathead Lake In Initial Gill-Netting
Posted on Friday, May 16, 2014 (PST)

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 species.


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 states.


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