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 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.
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.