The Crown of the Continent- Protecting and Connecting the Flathead in the 21st Century

Westslope Cutthroat trout, photo courtesy of Glacier Raft Co-

Westslope Cutthroat trout, photo courtesy of Glacier Raft Co-

Over thousands of years, the native bull trout and westslope cutthroat of the northern Rockies evolved complimentary ecologies- the cutthroat seldom exceeding twenty inches and subsisting largely on aquatic insects, the bull trout reaching twenty pounds or more and feeding heavily on fish.  Bull trout spawned in the autumn, cutthroat spawned in the spring, thereby reducing competition between juveniles for food.  Because of the relatively sterile nature of their cold, rocky streams, both species evolved the capacity for longevity- westslope cutthroat living six to eight years, bull trout well over ten.  And as with terrestrial species like grizzlies and wolverines and elk, the ecology and life history of bull trout and westslope cutthroat depends heavily on space- individuals of both species will migrate hundreds of kilometers through river systems, between foraging and spawning sites.

Bull trout spawning aggregation, photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bull trout spawning aggregation, photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bull trout were held in low regard by early settlers and anglers, largely due to their predatory nature.  Westslope cutthroat were seen as naive, poor sporting and table fare, and didn’t hold a candle to the more familiar rainbows, browns and brook trout anglers were familiar with- a sentiment which still persists among many anglers.  Angler attitudes in part dictated policy, and for decades public and private entities stocked all sorts of non-native trout, salmon, and warmwater species in hopes of improving the existing native fisheries.  These introductions had another important purpose as watersheds were poisoned by hardrock mining, as streams silted due to clearcutting and agriculture, and as liberal or nonexistent game laws allowed the overexploitation of sensitive fish populations.  The introduction of non-native species, more tolerant of man’s effect on the landscape, effectively masked the total destruction of native fisheries, effectively shifting the natural heritage of an entire region to something completely artificial.  For decades fisheries managers emphasized destination fisheries for non-native species, and interest and research on native species lagged- and it wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that westslope cutthroat and bull trout were recognized as species deserving of protection.

For more than a century the west has been carved up- between farmers and ranchers, mining and timber barons, and an alphabet soup of federal, private, state, and tribal entities- many with conflicting (or contradictory) goals and attitudes regarding conservation and land management.  Native, genetically pure strains of bull trout and westslope cutthroat find their populations circumscribed within ever-shrinking ranges- bull trout have been eliminated from half of their native range within the Columbia River basin, and more than 97 percent of the stream miles once occupied by westslope cutthroat have been inundated  by impoundments, or dewatered by agriculture withdrawals, or given over to nonnative species.

Flathead National Forest, photo courtesy

Flathead National Forest, photo courtesy

Bull trout and westslope cutthroat still have a few holdouts, namely the Flathead National Forest, and adjacent Glacier National Park, which protect nearly 3.5 million acres in northern Montana.  Since the early 1930s much of the Flathead has remained wilderness- today,  more than 470,000 acres are considered roadless by the U.S. Forest Service, ideal for protection of native salmonids as well as terrestrial species such as the grizzly bear, mountain goat, and wolverine.  More than 700 miles of stream within the Flathead National Forest are considered critical habitat for the protection and recovery of Bull trout, and more than sixteen hundred miles of stream serve as a critical refuge for genetically pure westslope cutthroat.  Protecting the Flathead’s remaining roadless areas maintains connections between upstream and downstream reaches of these watersheds, a critical component of these migratory species’ life history.  And as the west gets warmer and drier, as wildfires become larger and more intense, the ability of species to exploit and take refuge throughout an entire stream network becomes ever more critical.

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s new working paper- Conservation Legacy of a Flagship Forest:  Wildlife and Wildlands on the Flathead National Forest, Montana highlights the importance of reconnecting aquatic and terrestrial habitats within the national forest.  The paper highlights basic habitat requirements for several iconic western species, and makes the case that the ecological complexity of the Flathead National Forest and adjacent public, private, and tribal lands will be critical to protecting these species in the long term.  Ultimately, the paper recommends more than 400,000 acres be federally protected as roadless area, with nearly 140,000 additional acres protected as backcountry wilderness.  If the effort proves successful, and with the hard work and cooperation of biologists, conservationists, politiicans and anglers, these species and the Crown of the Continent can persist for generations.


Of Ruts & Grooves

“There’s a very fine line between a groove and a rut…

It’s too bad that life often gets in the way of good fishing- but for better or for worse, moves and new jobs have the tendency to do that.  Do what you can, when you can- I haven’t been able to get out much this summer, and I’m working on it.


Western Water Wars- Saving the Teton River (Again)


The upper Teton River flows through a wide, marshy valley and provides excellent trout fishing. The Teton River is once again threatened by the possibility of new impoundments, to meet the needs of downstream irrigators.

“I had heard grave reports about its present condition and the impact of dewatering on a great resource whose natural values have little standing in local law.  I had a feeling the Henry’s Fork was managed with a sharp eye on potato production, the modern equivalent of killing buffalo for their tongues.”

– Thomas McGuane, The Longest Silence

The same drama plays out on many of Henry’s Fork tributaries, including the Teton River.  Rising off the western slope of its namesake mountain range, the river meanders gently through a broad, wet meadow valley before plunging into a deep, inaccessible canyon for twenty-five miles.  It ultimately bursts out onto a broad, agricultural valley before meeting the Henry’s Fork near the town of Rexburg, Idaho.  Throughout its length the Teton and its tributaries boast unparalleled scenery and healthy populations of brook, cutthroat, and rainbow trout.  It is one of a handful of regional rivers which has made this portion of eastern Idaho and western Wyoming legendary among anglers.

June 5th, 1976- The failure of Teton Dam cost 11 lives, destroyed several towns and cost hundreds of millions in damage.

June 5th, 1976- The failure of Teton Dam cost 11 lives, destroyed several towns and cost hundreds of millions in damage.

Water has always been the limiting resource of the West, and various public and private schemes have been employed to remediate this reality.  Dams, diversion, and water conservation measures have all been variously employed in an attempt to provide enough water for livestock, agriculture, municipal use, and a burgeoning population.  Teton Dam, “a dubious waterworks that not only swindled the American taxpayer with an indisputably lousy cost-ratio but was built in such a lousy place that, upon bursting, it killed people as predictably as Uzis in the hands of crack dealers,” was one such venture.  June 5th,1976 Teton Dam failed-  250,000 acre-feet of water was drained from the reservoir in a matter of hours.  The massive flood killed eleven people and resulted in near-total destruction of several towns, ultimately costing more than 300 million dollars in damage.

Given the geology of the region, one can make a compelling argument Teton Dam should never have been built.  The underlying rhyolite and tuff bedrock is riddled with voids and crevices, allowing the flow of water.  And sitting at the western edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Teton Valley is in one of the most geologically active regions of the country- earthquakes are not uncommon. A 1959 earthquake near West Yellowstone, Montana killed 28 people and resulted in a massive landslide, creating Quake Lake.  Any large engineering project in the region is a risky proposition.


Water is coveted in eastern Idaho, and many streams are threatened by dams.

Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, and rebuilding Teton Dam is one of several proposals being contemplated by the Bureau of Land Management and agricultural interests, in hopes of addressing the region’s water woes.  Irrigation and domestic withdrawals have depleted the region’s aquifer by 600,000 acre-feet, and the dam (if it holds) could significantly ameliorate the region’s water troubles.  Tributary impoundments on Badger Creek, Moose Creek, and Spring Creek- could store between thirty and sixty thousand acre-feet each.

Any of these options takes perfectly good trout streams and buries them- permanently- under several hundred feet of water.  But beyond aesthetics, these impoundments would alter the ecology of the region as a whole.  Teton Canyon provides important habitat for a number of species, including mule deer and the trumpeter swan- reconstruction of the dam would inundate this habitat.  And many Teton tributaries support some of the last genetically pure Yellowstone Cutthroat populations in Idaho- a species in trouble throughout its range, and one heavily dependent on natural flow regimes.  Impoundments alter those flow regimes and put those populations in jeopardy.

Dams alter aquatic foodwebs, changing the invertebrate communities on which fish feed.

Dams alter aquatic foodwebs, changing the invertebrate communities on which fish feed.

  Dams prevent the movement of individuals and genes between upstream and downstream populations.  A headwater population of cutthroat, ravaged or destroyed by floods, fire, or drought- has little chance of being recolonized by downstream populations if a dam stands in the way.  Dams are often the harbinger of nonnative species- impoundments are often stocked with non-native rainbow trout, and the stable flows of tailwaters promotes rainbows over the native cutthroat.  Rainbows directly compete for food and spawning sites, and successfully interbreed with cutthroats, compromising the genetic integrity of a species which has been adapting to its environment for more than 10,000 years.  Other competitors such as brown and lake trout are often sportfish components of impoundments, and non-native predators such as walleye and northern pike also find their way into such systems, stocked intentionally by the state or by enterprising anglers.

Local opposition to dam construction has been substantial, driven primarily by fishing and whitewater guides.  If you’re interested in learning more about the issue, and what can be done to protect one of our last best wild trout streams, get in touch with the folks at Save the Teton River, one of several local nonprofits devoted to the issue.

yellowstone cutt