Forest Service Issues Decision on the North Fork Blackfoot River Native Fish Restoration Project
By Moosetrack Megan

Posted: July 17, 2021

Seeley Lake, MT, June 15— The Forest Service has issued a decision to authorize Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) to establish a secure conservation population of native westslope cutthroat trout in the North Fork of the Blackfoot River in the Scapegoat Wilderness. The project will work to remedy non-native stocking actions taken prior to Wilderness designation. The project area spans the Seeley Lake Ranger District in the Lolo National Forest and the Lincoln Ranger District in the Helena – Lewis and Clark National Forest and will begin as soon as this summer.

As a species of concern in Montana, both the Forest Service and Montana FWP have an interest in conserving this trout species. Although the westslope cutthroat trout is native to the Blackfoot River watershed, populations have decreased in abundance and distribution across their historical range due to hybridization with rainbow trout, barriers to movement, habitat degradation, and climate change.

“We carefully considered the potential impacts of this project along with the public feedback we received,” stated Lolo National Forest Supervisor, Carolyn Upton. “The project design will help to minimize the short-term impacts to the public over the course of the project, while bringing both us and FWP closer to our shared conservation goals of the species.”

Establishing the native population in the North Fork of the Blackfoot River will occur in two phases; phase one will remove the non-native and hybrid fish species from the project area, and phase two will restock the native westslope cutthroat trout species over the next 1-6 years. The project will be implemented using a variety of actions including helicopter flights for transporting equipment safely and to reduce impact to the trail system and the recreating public.

The Forest Service has assessed the suitability of the proposed activities in the Scapegoat Wilderness through a process called a “minimum requirements analysis.” This is a process used to identify, analyze, and recommend management actions that are the minimum necessary for wilderness administration. While short-term impacts may occur during project implementation, these will be outweighed by the long-term gains of removing nonindigenous fish species from the headwaters of the Blackfoot River.

“This project is a top priority for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks,” said Randy Arnold, FWP Regional Supervisor.  “Hybrid trout in this area are an outlier in an otherwise native trout stronghold, so we’d like to establish westslope cutthroat trout in the project area similar to the healthy populations in neighboring drainages.”

Montana FWP has the responsibility and authority to manage fish and wildlife populations on National Forest System lands in Montana and has completed a Montana Environmental Policy Act Environmental Assessment and Decision Notice for this project which is available for review at: https://fwp.mt.gov/public-notices/news/2020/nov/north-fork-wct-11092020.

For more information, please visit the Lolo National Forest project page: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=59396.