« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Make anglers allies for endangered species


The prism of clear river water can distort and magnify the size of a fish, an effect amplified by adrenaline and nostalgia. Still, I remember one fish big enough to shake my whole view of the world.

 I was of that tender age when one believes one’s father to be capable of anything except failure. Dad and I were camping along a headwater tributary of Idaho’s Clearwater River.

The trout rose from the shadows of the glassy waters, beyond reach of my childlike casts. It dashed after my dad’s spinner, but never struck. My mind’s eye sees that fish flashing bright and infuriating until the rich evening light faded to dark.

The fish made my old man mortal. That was my introduction to a bull trout, apex predator of the Columbia River Basin.

 Today, I live in the stronghold of the bull trout – the Kootenai and Flathead Drainages of western Montana. I’ve watched as the legendary run from Flathead Lake crashed, and another at Swan Lake drifts into trouble. I’ve also seen the species go from obscurity to headlines when it was listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Still, in Montana waters where the species is holding its own, one may catch -- and even keep and eat -- bull trout. I believe that’s a good thing, and shows the inherent flexibility of the Endangered Species Act.

It surprises many that fishermen are still allowed to pursue bull trout under the Endangered Species Act, that notorious “atomic sledgehammer” of a law.

Bull trout were once vilified as a “cannibal fish” that gobbled up more desirable species. Similarly, some politically motivated people vilify the Endangered Species Act, far beyond objective reality.

May 18 is National Endangered Species Day. It’s also National Cheese Souffle Day. I’m glad that it’s still possible for me to celebrate that day with fried fillet of bull trout, instead of a puffy French pastry. The Endangered Species Act allows for such a sustainable harvest, when state and federal managers agree to make it a priority.

Regulated sport fishing rarely contributes to the demise of a fish species, but it has contributed to rescue of them. Bull trout, like too many native trout, char and salmon species of the Columbia Basin, face a variety of threats. Dams, competitive exotic species, and degradation of clear, cold spawning streams are far more damaging and permanent than well-regulated sport fishing. In turn, fishermen can be a fish’s most powerful political allies, working together in groups like Trout Unlimited.

The Endangered Species Act does protect endangered species habitat, mostly on federal land. In general, it also bars the “take” or killing of members of a troubled species.

But there are exceptions. Even where bull trout are listed as a threatened species, they can still be fair game for well-managed sport fishing under section 4d of the Endangered Species Act. Between 2004-10, Montana‘s Koocanusa Reservoir and Hungry Horse Reservoir of South Fork of the Flathead River offered about 43,000 of days of fishing and produced more than 2,500 healthy, locally produced bull-trout meals.

All this has negligible impact on the population.  On the plus side, it introduces thousands of people to the fish and gives them reason to be invested in conservation. With good luck and hard work, fishing opportunities will expand as the species recovers.

My own son likes fishing the kiddie ponds these days, delighted with a 10-inch rainbow trout fresh from the hatchery. Someday I’d like to take him to some remote mountain river and show him a bull trout big and smart enough to make a fool of his old man.

Image: Bull trout like these spawners in Montana’s Swan Valley are excellent “indicator species” of clean water.  © Karen Nichols

Ben Long is an outdoorsman, conservationist and author in Kalispell, Mont. He is senior program director for Resource Media.