Tribes use funds to restore westslope cutthroat trout


Editor's note: These stories were produced for High Country News by students in the University of Montana's online news class. They will be running over a period of two weeks in the Range blog. See a list of all the stories here.

By Russell Greenfield

On the west-facing foothills of the Mission Mountain Wilderness, about five miles east of Highway 93, lies a 40-acre parcel of land recently purchased by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Just a year ago, this piece of land was privately owned. A natural stream carved through the middle of the property, ending abruptly at a driveway where it was barricaded by a culvert.

After a tip from a friend, the landowners notified the tribe of the stream’s existence. Tribal biologists came out to investigate.  They were looking for only one thing: a genetically pure specimen of the native westslope cutthroat trout.

Using an electro-shocker, the biologists zapped a small section of the stream with a weak charge. The stunned fish rose to the surface, giving researchers the chance to take a tiny sample from their fins. “I couldn’t believe the number of fish and their size when the guys showed them to me,” said the landowner, who, for reasons of privacy, asked not to be identified. “It’s such a small and thin stream, I never thought fish could be living in it.”

Once the DNA results came back positive, identifying the fish as pure breed, the tribes purchased the property.

They were able to do this because of a unique funding deal. The Bonneville Power Administration, or BPA, initially gave the Confederated Tribes $3.49 million in 2005, and has continued to contribute money every year since then as “partial mitigation for the construction and operation of the Hungry Horse Dam on the South Fork of the Flathead River.” In 2011, BPA-provided funds allowed the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to purchase 172 acres with streams that are home to pure genetic breeds of native fish.

Purchasing lands with native species on them is like preventive medicine, said Rusty Sydnor, a botanist for the tribal Fisheries Department. “It’s always cheaper to protect a habitat than restore one.”

Construction of the Hungry Horse Dam and Reservoir, the nation’s 11th largest, started more than 60 years ago.  It cut off streams and continues to act as a huge barrier for westslope cutthroat and bull trout spawning runs.  Since then, there has been a severe decline of these fish in Flathead Lake and in the surrounding streams going in and out of the reservation.  But even before the dams came, native species were in trouble. Settlers as far back as the early 1900s stocked ponds in the mountains with non-natives, including rainbow trout, which then bred with indigenous breeds and produced the genetically impure hybrids so common in Rocky Mountain streams, lakes and rivers. With the continued crowding, “we are losing the genetic integrity of these important species,” Sydnor says.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the federal government has a legal obligation to protect threatened species. But for the Confederated Tribes, the commitment goes much deeper. The native trout play an important role within the local culture.  There was a time when native westslope cutthroat and bull trout were the people’s primary food source. Their loss would have a devastating impact on tribes that have inhabited the region for more than 12,000 years.

The use of money to help conservation programs mitigate negative impacts on a reservation isn’t new. Other tribes have also purchased land to protect endangered or important species. The Yurok Tribe of Northern California has bought ancestral land to restore it and create a salmon sanctuary, for example.  The salmon is a very important species to the tribe’s culture, and so it has become a top priority when it comes to local habitat rehabilitation.

It was a renewed sense of urgency about saving their own remaining native fish that brought the Salish and Kootenai to the small parcel east of Highway 93. In this case, the driveway, with its culvert, was the native species' savior. The culvert split the stream in two and stopped anything from coming back upstream  --- including non-native trout.  “It just seemed like a matter of luck, I guess,” says the former landowner.

With the use of BPA funds between 2005 and September 2011, the Salish and Kootenai have bought or protected about 2,340 acres containing about 15 miles kilometers of native fish habitat.  These parcels of land lie in Lake, Missoula, Sanders and Flathead counties. There may be more to come: The tribes are negotiating with BPA to continue the fish habitat-protection efforts.  As industrial and residential construction increases on and around reservations, the need to protect and restore still-undeveloped land becomes ever more important.

Once tribes own a property, they are fully responsible for its management. That creates local jobs and encourages cooperation across several departments. Jean Matt, a forest development program manager for the Confederated Tribes, who runs one of the biggest seed nurseries in Montana, also works with the tribal fish and wildlife departments on restoration of newly purchased lands. Even though many tribal members lack a college education, Matt says, conservation projects provide decent-paying jobs.

According to Matt, tribal conservation projects also encourage self-reliance. Jobs are created, but the tribe remains in control, owning the land its members work on and paying them to take care of it. Big projects really boost a tribe’s economic status and offer good opportunities for steady employment. “At points during the year I have over 100 people working for me,” says Matt. “All of them are tribal members.”

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Image of westslope cutthroat trout courtesy USFWS Mountain Prairie.

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