By Tom Sentner
Saving Bull Trout
Immersed in a cathedral-like forest of tall trees in the cool quiet of morning, my thoughts are interrupted upon hearing an unfamiliar sound behind me—horse hooves. I am hiking the trail to Quartz Lake, where I’ll interview Glacier National Park’s fisheries crew. I had fallen behind the lightning-paced crew and now I’m falling behind the mules packing in their supplies, even though the animals are loaded down with inflatable kayaks, nets, fuel, and other supplies. Fisheries management work in Glacier’s backcountry is fraught with logistical challenges, and I start to think maybe I shouldn’t have packed my inflatable bed roll and those heavy cans of chili.Finally, I reach Quartz Lake. The crew is busy re-packing the mules with the previous week’s worn nets and empty gas containers. Their newly acquired boat, flown in by helicopter last year, sits anchored on the glassy water in front of imposing Vulture Peak. There’s a good reason why Fisheries Program Manager Chris Downs focuses much of his team’s efforts here. This quiet lake, ringed by dense, coniferous forest, is a key battleground in the fight to save some of the last viable bull trout populations and habitat in the Northwest.
Bull trout are the top native predators of the upper Columbia River system. They have a very low thermal tolerance, meaning they require extremely cold water to survive. This makes bull trout vulnerable to warming stream temperatures, which are predicted to continue to rise as the climate warms. They are also a migratory species that moves from lakes and rivers into smaller tributaries to spawn, making them additionally vulnerable to the loss of suitable stream habitat. Nonnative lake trout, which spawn directly in lakes, displace bull trout through predation and competition for food. These combined threats create a challenging conservation puzzle for Glacier’s fisheries team.
Glacier National Park records show that concern about the invasive nature of lake trout was voiced in the 1930s and again in the 1960s by fisheries biologists studying Glacier’s lakes and streams. These concerns proved to be tragically valid. Lake trout, which had been intentionally introduced to Flathead Lake in 1905, gradually made their way into the upper reaches of the watershed, including lakes on Glacier’s western slopes. Bull trout populations that thrived in these waters for thousands of years crashed rapidly, with dramatic declines often appearing within 30 years after initial detection of lake trout. Quartz Lake is unique among these lakes. When lake trout were first documented in Quartz Lake in 2005, the lake still contained a healthy bull trout population. Biologists feared that if immediate action wasn’t taken, the bull trout population would essentially disappear, mirroring what had occurred in all of Glacier’s other large lakes west of the Continental Divide.
Logging Lake was historically home to one of the most robust bull trout populations in the park. But when lake trout showed up, the population crashed. Translocating, or moving, bull trout upstream to Grace Lake is a way to put some of the bull trout population in “the bank,” so to speak, and protect it until lake trout can be removed from Logging Lake. As Glacier fisheries biologist Carter Fredenberg explains, “The reason we chose Logging and Grace is because there is a natural barrier between the two lakes, keeping Grace Lake protected from invading lake trout. We were at the very last stages of where we thought bull trout might become extirpated from Logging Lake if something was not done, so we got together with USGS and said, ‘Let’s move fish!’ ”
Carter Fredenberg describes the reasons and process in moving juvenile bull trout from Logging Lake to Grace lake as well as the overall goals of the bull trout recovery project in Glacier National Park.
Fredenberg: And the reason we chose Logging and Grace was, first of all, because there’s a natural barrier between the two. And also, Logging…historically Logging was one of the most robust bull trout populations west of the Continental Divide, in the park. But, once lake trout invaded there was a collapse, basically, in the bull trout population just like we’ve seen in every other lake—within thirty years, we see these populations…these native bull trout populations…collapse and lake trout numbers overwhelm the system.
- 2 minutes, 16 seconds
So, we were at the very last stages of where we thought bull trout might become extirpated from Logging Lake because of lake trout if something was not done. We came to a point where it was like, “If we don’t make a move and try and save, you know, these bull trout…this genetic population in Logging…we might not have a chance again.”
And so, the USGS and the park service collaborated and said, “Yeah well, let’s move. Let’s move as many as we can!” So, at this point, I think we’ve had ah…a hundred and eleven juvenile bull trout that we’ve moved above the barrier into Grace Lake, into that system.
Then, the next phase of this whole project comes on where the USGS is currently gill netting Logging Lake for lake trout. So, the idea is…is that we effectively moved this small population of bull trout, at least a portion of it, into a safe location above the falls. And then, we’re trying to gill net as many lake trout out as we can to try to drive that population of lake trout down in Logging.
Interviewer Tom Sentner: And they can come back.
Fredenberg: Right, and then hopefully, at some point, we’ll be able to capture some of those bull trout and move them back down or, if they naturally disperse, then they can do that and we’ll have the same genetic population that was there!
But saving a species takes more than just figuring out how to move fish. It requires integrating bull trout recovery with the overall management of Glacier National Park. For example, state and federal laws require the control of invasive species—but Glacier’s fisheries biologists must also, by law, take care to preserve the wilderness character of the park. Wilderness concerns have to be reconciled with the team’s critical mission to save the bull trout, a species that is federally listed as threatened and a fish that has a key role to play in the ecology and cultural landscape of the park.
The fisheries team doesn’t net lake trout during peak visitor months, so as not to detract from visitors’ wilderness experience. They also avoid disturbing other species that share these areas with the bull trout. “We take care to avoid impacts to wildlife like loons and eagles, and are constantly working to minimize bycatch of other fish species in the lake trout removal nets. We pay attention to behavior and do everything we can to limit disturbance to those critters,” says Downs. “It’s a balancing act. We try to make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time.”
Glacier National Park Fisheries Program Manager Chris Downs explains the various factors managers need to consider when implementing a project like the bull trout recovery plan.
Downs: It’s a balancing act. And you try and mitigate—you try and come up with mitigations, or ways to reduce the negative impacts to resources, like visitor use and experience, which I kind of couple with wilderness and wild places because you think about it in terms of…largely what humans will notice even though wilderness you could say is just, in and of itself, a separate stand-alone thing. But, really you talk about, do people see mechanical things in the wilderness, do they hear mechanical noises in the wilderness?
- 1 minute, 21 seconds
So, we try and…for instance we only operate outside of the peak use seasons. So, we don’t do anything in July and August on those lakes. Even though we could continue, but that’s what’s in our environmental documents as mitigation for visitor use and general impacts. You know we, we take care to avoid impacts to wildlife like loons and eagles. We pay attention to their behavior. We do whatever we can to reduce the disturbance to those critters—and ah, you know…it says we’ll keep 400 yards away from any loon nests.
So we try to and come up with ways to, to sort of reduce the overall impact. And again, it’s a balancing act and we just try to make the best decisions we can with the information that we have at the time.
The barrier consists of gabions (bales of rock held together with wire). The ingenious design of the barrier is that the gabions are placed in such a way that water flowing through them does not form deep pools. Without deep pools, fish cannot get enough speed to jump the barrier. “Since the barrier was built in 2005, we’ve definitely been putting the hammer down on lake trout,” Jon says. The crew has removed thousands of lake trout from Quartz Lake since then, and is now seeing the fruits of their labor. Each year, they find more redds, which are the nests bull trout build in streams. This is a good sign, because successful lake trout control should lead to recovering bull trout populations. As Jon explains, “We saw the highest redd counts ever the year before last, and almost as high last year. We hope that is a reflection of what we’re doing with the lake trout, and that lake trout numbers have been going down. Last year I think we only caught 17 adults.”
These encouraging results are what make tackling all the challenges of such a complex conservation puzzle worthwhile. No one knows how the story will end, but we do know that bull trout have adapted to this unique landscape over millennia and that they are an important species worth fighting to save. If this crew has their way, bull trout will be swimming these cold, clear headwaters for generations to come.