Saving Montana’s Remaining Westslope Cutthroat Trout

Déjà vu all over again?

No, though it’s too bad there wasn’t a way to change the name of that creek in the East Pioneer Mountains to something other than Cherry Creek.

This Cherry Creek is a stream that flows into the Big Hole River near Melrose, Montana. Most of the stream’s drainage is described as a “relatively pristine watershed.” Most of the stream is on either Forest Service or BLM land, so it’s accessible, with some effort, to the public, except for the lower end of the creek, which is on private land. Most angling takes place on a couple small headwaters lakes, Cherry Lake and Granite Lake, both of which have populations of hybridized westslope cutthroat trout.

Cherry Creek gets little if any fishing pressure because it’s small and has dense willows in riparian areas. It’s important in that until recently it held populations of pure westslope cutthroat trout. In 2005, according to an Environmental Assessment prepared by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, non-hybridized cutthroat trout were still present in the stream. In 2008 and 2009, sampling indicated that rainbow trout had moved into the stream and were hybridizing with the native trout. In addition, brook trout had established a foothold in the stream.

FWP plans to chemically treat the Cherry Creek watershed to kill off all the fish in the stream and the two lakes and then restock with genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout. A second part of the project is to build a barrier at the lower end of the stream to prevent non-native fish from migrating back up the creek.

Construction of the barrier will take place this spring and the fish removal process would be done in late summer and fall of 2011. Similar projects are in the works on two other creeks: Dyce Creek, an upper Big Hole tributary near Wisdom, and McVey Creek, a tributary of Grasshopper Creek west of Dillon.  Those two streams still have populations of genetically pure cutts, and the goal will be to get rid of competing brook trout and keep them out.

The déjà vu aspect is a look back an another Cherry Creek, a stream that flows into the lower Madison River—with a kicker: a big chunk of that creek’s watershed is owned by media mogul Ted Turner, America’s biggest landowner. That project went through a long round of public hearings, appeals, court appeals and downright bitter controversy. That project finally got started in 2003. It ended the way it started, in that when the biologists treated the last patch of water above the barrier in 2010, something went wrong and there was a fish kill in lower parts of the stream, triggering one last round of controversy.

So, aside from all the controversy, how did that project turn out?

Mike Vaughn, a fisheries biologist at the Bozeman office of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, described it as a multi-phase project starting with treatment of the upper ends of the watershed and beginning the restocking process until it was finally completed in 2010. The final results were totally satisfactory. “The westslope cutthroat trout are repopulating the stream and are thriving. We have a watershed with many miles of stream with westslope trout, and that’s mighty rare in this area.”

Last week’s hearings in Dillon and Butte were mostly peaceful, with the exception of Pollyana Thurmond, a Butte woman who came with a fistful of computer printouts ostensibly demonstrating dangers of the chemical rotenone, which the biologists on hand patiently tried to refute.

Westslope cutthroat trout are the official fish of Montana and at one time were found in the entire Missouri River watershed upstream from the Great Falls, occupying, at one time, 10,000 miles of streams. That is now reduced to a mere 400 miles of streams, mostly isolated populations scattered in headwater creeks.

FWP will accept comments on the projects through Sunday, April 24, though it is my hope the project continues. These native fish are an important part of our heritage and if we don’t act they could become extinct in Montana and that would be an even worse déjà vu.