Last week, Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tires have decided to expand the environmental review process for the controversial lake trout netting project happening on Flathead lake. Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks has decided to withdraw it’s support from the process.
The conflict occured at a Flathead Reservation Fish and Wildlife Board meeting in Missoula. During the meeting, tribal officials announced that an environmental assessment process launched in 2010 will be converted to a more exhaustive environmental impact statement process under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The tribes’ NEPA expert recommended the change because the current model for lake trout suppression could last for 50 years. The suppression work, which would involve the use of gill or trap nets on the lake, is aimed at reducing the non-native lake trout population for the benefit of native bull trout and cutthroat trout.
But the expanded review also was announced as the tribes prepared to submit documents to a special panel that evaluates projects seeking fish and wildlife mitigation funding from the Bonneville Power Administration.
The tribes were planning to submit those documents by this week to meet deadlines required by BPA, which has more recently allowed an extension for project review. But Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials concluded they cannot support the proposed environmental impact statement in its present form. “Please remove our name from the document to be submitted to the Bonneville Power Administration’s Independent Scientific Review Panel,” stated Bruce Rich, the agency’s fisheries bureau chief, in a letter to the tribes on March 1. “Our staff believes that the draft EIS, in its present state, is incomplete in both content and process.”
The letter states that the tribes have yet to provide the state — a co-manager of the lake — with a full draft of the review documents, yet the tribes plan to submit those documents for funding review with the state listed as a full partner in the project.
Rich said there is concern that doing so will make Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks appear to have a “pre-decisional” commitment to the netting project before the public has a chance to adequately engage in the process.
At the Missoula meeting, Region One Supervisor Jim Satterfield further explained the state’s reservations.Only three public meetings were held for environmental assessment scoping in 2010, and Satterfield said there are questions about the relevance of those meetings to the new impact-study process, considering how the process has evolved since then.
The lake is one of the state’s most popular fishing destinations and a “significant portion of the economic engine of the Flathead Valley,” he said. The state also wants an analysis of the expected benefits or harm to native bull trout and cutthroat trout from lake trout removal efforts. Netting, for instance, can lead to “by-catch” bull trout mortalities.
Removing lake trout may cause another boon in the lake’s mysis shrimp population, which in turn could lead to impacts on zooplankton and increased algae blooms in the lake. Those issues and others are being evaluated in the final stages of the EIS process, Hansen said.
“We didn’t want to see the document submitted to the ISRP until it’s complete, and it’s not complete,” Satterfield said. But those critical of the project from the beginning now question the willingness to accept information that may undermine it.
“I’m accusing them of cherry-picking” data, said Bob Orsua, owner of the Mo’ Fisch fishing charter business. Orsua said those involved in the process, which he has followed closely, have shown no interest in catch rates of the nine charter businesses that operate on the lake. The average catch rate for lake trout has dropped from 14 fish per charter in 1995 to three fish per charter in 2010. Orsua attributes the declining rate to the aggressive “Mack Days” fishing events held in spring and fall, which give anglers financial incentives to remove and kill thousands of lake trout.
According to tribal officials, the events have been highly successful and popular, but they have not been adequate to reduce the lake trout population to a desirable level. But Orsua challenges that position, saying that a “desirable” population hasn’t even been defined; that’s what the EIS process is supposed to determine.
Chuck Hunt, president of Flathead Wildlife Inc., said he believes the economic impacts of gill and trap netting lake trout from Flathead Lake are obvious.
“It will become a dead zone” for sport anglers, he said, because the lake trout population will be devastated, leaving threatened bull trout that can’t be legally caught and catch-and-release only rules for cutthroat trout.
At the end of the Missoula meeting, the chairwoman asked if there were any public comments and questions. She took one question from Orsua, and then closed the meeting even though there were more people with more questions at the Kalispell office.