Westslope cutthroat trout restoration proposed for Beehive, Bostwick creeks

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

BIG SKY, BOZEMAN – Westslope cutthroat trout once populated 1,030 miles of river in the Gallatin River Basin. Today, they inhabit roughly 10.

Habitat degradation, hybridization with rainbow and Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and competition and predation by brown and brook trout caused the decline over the last 150 years.

Westslope cutthroat have fared a better in western Montana drainages such as the Bighole, Clark Fork and Columbia rivers, but they’re still at only 4 percent of their historic range statewide, according to Jim Olsen, a Fisheries Biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Helena.

“The Gallatin Basin is in a lot tougher shape than most,” Olsen said. This, he explained, is because western Montana didn’t have the same history of stocking and introduction of non-natives as the Gallatin Basin did.

But a few remnant populations of the fish – WCT for short – living above barriers like beaver dams or culverts have survived in the Gallatin Basin, including one in Beehive Basin Creek, north of Big Sky, and another in Bostwick Creek, on the west side of the Bridger Mountains. The Forest Service and FWP have proposed a project to protect them.

RESTORATION

Beehive Basin Creek begins at a small, unnamed lake, colloquially known as Egg Lake, in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. It runs 3.5 miles down past a Forest Service trailhead, through private land, and 2 more miles to its confluence with the Middle Fork of the West Fork, near Lone Mountain Trail.

Forest Service biologists in 2009 surveyed the stream’s fish population while determining if they wanted to replace an old culvert. What they found surprised them: WCT, protected by another culvert downstream that had been installed incorrectly and didn’t allow fish to pass upstream.

Genetic testing found the fish were hybridized with rainbows, which also live in the creek, but at less than 1 percent, were pure enough to warrant protection.

“Anytime we find genetically pure or slightly hybridized westslope cutthroat trout in the Gallatin Drainage, that’s a big thing,” said Bruce Roberts, District Fisheries Biologist for the Gallatin National Forest, who was there during the initial discovery.

Working with FWP, Roberts has proposed a project that would remove rainbow and brook trout from the creek using electrofishing this summer, restocking it with the WCT pulled out during the removal effort.

Later in the summer, the group would use gill nets to remove the Yellowstone cutthroat that live in Egg Lake. Native to the nearby Yellowstone Basin, these fish were stocked in the lake at an unknown time – FWP has no record of it – and also pose a threat to the WCT through hybridization.

In the last year, Roberts has coordinated with all 14 homeowners along Beehive Basin Creek, and now has their permission to start mechanically removing all non-native fish from the drainage, if the FWP environmental assessment is approved.

Once the Yellowstone cutthroat are removed, the agencies would stock the lake with WCT from downstream, or from non-hybridized sources in the Gallatin River drainage, which would boost the genetic diversity of the Beehive Basin Creek population.

In the Bridger Range, biologists found genetically pure WCT in Bostwick Creek during routine survey work about five years ago. The presence of brook and rainbow trout in the drainage – which outnumber WCT 6 to 1 – threatens the native fish there, as well.

Because of Bostwick Creek’s larger size and complex habitat, Roberts says electrofishing will be a short-term fix. Long-term solutions could include electrofishing every couple of years, or manual removal of the WCT combined with rotenone treatment, which kills all aquatic life, followed by restocking with native WCT.

PARTNERSHIP

Most of the state’s cutthroat populations are on National Forest land, hence the reason why the Forest Service initiated these projects. However, fish regulation is ultimately under the jurisdiction of FWP.

“When we find something like what we found in Beehive Basin Creek, we try to work together with anybody and everybody to restore and maintain that population,” said Roberts, explaining that the Forest Service also partners with Yellowstone National Park, landowners and Trout Unlimited on cutthroat conservation projects.

“We can’t do it alone, and we’re authorized to work on private land if [a project] benefits the public or public land. It’s our feeling that cutthroat conservation is in the [public’s] best interest.”

An agreement signed in 2007 by the state and several other Montana entities was developed to expedite implementation of conservation measures for native cutthroat throughout their historical ranges. Designed to be a collaborative, cooperative effort among resource agencies, conservation and industry organizations, tribes, resource users and private landowners, it aimed to reduce threats to the fish.

While this kind of project has become routine in other parts of the state, it’s new in the Gallatin River Basin.

FWP on May 2 released an Environmental Assessment for the Project, and is seeking public comment through May 31. If significant concerns are raised regarding the EA, FWP will hold a public open house for further discussion.

Pat Straub, owner of Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky, said it’s a political topic.

“Where is our money better spent? On improving access on certain streams, or to put fish back to where they once where?”

Straub mentioned the controversial 2010 WCT restoration project in Cherry Creek, in which biologists miscalculated and accidentally killed 1,000-1,500 fish with rotenone, and then they stocked the creek with WCT eggs the following year.

“It was definitely polarizing,” Straub said, “but now when people catch a native westslope cutthroat on the lower Madison, it’s pretty cool, and it probably came out of Cherry Creek.”

Straub said he’s in favor of the project in Beehive. “I support anything that creates more opportunities for people to be out and enjoy fishing.”

BIG PICTURE

Westslope and Yellowstone cutthroat are the only two subspecies of native cutthroat in Montana, and are designated as the state fish. Both are classified as a Montana Fish of Special Concern, and have been reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for potential listing under the Endangered Species Act.

There is an intrinsic value to native fish, Olsen says. “It’s evolved here forever. If we lose those fish adapted to the kind of climate here, you can’t ever get them back.”

In the wild, WCT live in lakes and streams in the headwaters of southwestern and western Montana rivers. FWP maintains a broodstock of pure WCT at its Anaconda hatchery, which it uses to stock these habitats.

Those remnant habitats are important genetically, particularly in the big picture, says Travis Horton, FWP Region 3 Fisheries Manager.

“If you think back to when westslope cutthroat were across this landscape, there was a lot of genetic diversity among them,” Horton said. “When all you have left are remnant [populations] upstream of a barrier, they’re occupying a small 4- to 5-mile stretch. With small populations, they lose genetic diversity rapidly.”

FWP’s long-term goal is to have WCT living in 20 percent of their historically occupied habitat. The genetic diversity offered through the separate populations, Horton said, would help keep the fish from disappearing entirely.

In areas targeted for cutthroat, Olsen said, non-native species will be removed. The rest of the waters, including all the large river basins, will continue to be managed for non-native trout.

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Public comment needed on proposed westslope cutthroat trout conservation project

Environmental Assessment: Westslope Cutthroat Trout Conservation through the Mechanical Removal of Non-Native Trout in Three Streams of Southwest Montana

Proposed action: Remove non-native trout mechanically from the South Fork North Fork Divide Creek (Silverbow County), Bostwick Creek (Bridger Mountains) and Beehive Basin Creek (Spanish Peaks). The means proposed electrofishing the streams, netting the lakes and draining South Fork Reservoir.

Intent: The removal of non-native trout would secure several of the few remaining native WCT populations in the Big Hole and Gallatin drainages by eliminating competition and hybridization from nonnative trout. The project is meant to increase the abundance and range of WCT, which may result in greater fishing opportunities and eventual harvest.

Public comments are due to FWP by May 31. Include name and address. Submit to:

Jim Olsen

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park

Butte, MT 59701

jimolsen@mt.gov