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  • Writer's pictureColter Murphy

Intentions and Impact: a Lake Apart

During this season, Confluence has been exploring the theme of “intentions” during our gatherings. In particular, our March 3rd gathering explored the impacts of our intentions, both intended and unintended. I wrote this story to illustrate the complexities of differing intentions as they play out over time. This story was informed by personal personal knowledge, and by dates and statistics found in the article “The great Flathead fish fiasco,” published in High Country News in 2014 and written by Eric Wagner: https://www.hcn.org/issues/46-2/the-great-flathead-fish-fiasco/


This is a story about Flathead Lake. It is as deep and complex as the food web living beneath its waves. Many people with many intentions have affected the lake and the life it holds. It all begins with Glacial Lake Missoula carving out the large mass of land, and the receding glaciers filling the lake. The Salish, Qlispe, and Kootenai people knew this lake for its fish. They caught bull trout and cutthroat trout as a dependable, steady source of food. After the signing of the Hellgate Treaty in 1855, the lake became an even more important food source for the people forced into living on the land we call the Flathead Reservation. 


In 1930, settler construction of a large dam at the outlet of Flathead Lake began. Across the west, the use of dams to take away power and sustainable food sources from native people in the name of hydropower creation became the latest iteration of manifest destiny. The Kerr dam, and all of the dams downstream from it on the river we call the Clark Fork, had a tremendous negative impact on the movement of the cutthroat and bull trout, and the health of the river system as a whole. 



With settler colonialism also came its way of viewing fish: as a commodity to profit from. The institutions of fisheries management across the west began dumping truckloads of non-native fish into lakes in the name of sport fishing and tourism. In Flathead lake, lake trout and kokanee salmon were both introduced: first the lake trout in 1905, from the Great Lakes, then the kokanee in 1920, from Bonneville, Oregon. The kokanee thrived in the lake, becoming the most-caught fish. The kokanee brought eagles who would congregate in vast numbers along the upstream rivers and streams in Glacier National Park during spawning season. 


The success of the kokanee led to continued wondering from Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. Could the lake fishery become even better? In 1981, fisheries managers introduced a large freshwater shrimp called Mysis in hopes it would increase the kokanee population. Instead, they wiped out the kokanee altogether. Kokanee feed in shallow water during the daytime. Mysis live on the bottom of the lake during the day, and rise to the surface only at night, like little vampires. In a lake that reaches depths of almost 400 feet, this created a distinct separation between kokanee and the shrimp that were supposed to feed them. 


The introduction of the vampire shrimp also emboldened the lake trout, which feed along the bottom of the lake during the day. Lake trout are piscivorous, which means they eat other fish. Fueled by shrimp, the lake trout grew in size and number, and ate all the kokanee, bull trout, and cutthroat trout they could swallow. Today, the lake is dominated by lake trout and there is no viable kokanee population left. 


There are, surprisingly, still bull trout in the lake. Perhaps because lake trout stay in the lake, and bull trout migrate to upstream rivers and streams to spawn, the bull trout population hasn’t totally gone away. And the population is managed by two distinct parties: Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. In a bizarre instance of drawing a line in the water, there is an actual map boundary that separates the two managers of the fishery, and their distinct management strategies.


For the CSKT managers, there is a self-described ecological and moral mandate to try to save the remaining bull trout. Their goal is clear: to remove as many lake trout as they can. FWP sees the lake that supports a $20 million dollar per year fishery, while also having a competing mandate to protect native species.


In 2000, a co-management strategy between FWP and CSKT managers was drafted and approved. They agreed to do investigative research together into bull trout populations and monitor them over time. This would allow both parties to see how healthy the bull trout population was, and how the lake trout were affecting it. In 2012 the results were published, but there was disagreement about the interpretation of the results. CSKT identified the lake trout as the key cause of bull trout population decline, and saw the existing bull trout population was in jeopardy. FWP argued the bull trout population was stable enough, and opted not to change their management plan. 


A proposed CSKT management plan published in 2012 set the goal of actively removing and killing lake trout, in order to increase the bull trout population. Shortly after its publication, FWP managers ran articles in local papers stating their disagreement with the strategy, and the collaboration fell apart. 


CSKT managers continue to net for lake trout on their “half” of the lake, as spelled out in an updated 2014 management plan. Their goal is to remove 140,000 lake trout each year, through gillnetting and through a large lake trout fishing tournament called “mack days.” The fish that are caught don’t go to waste either, they get processed at a facility on the lake and sold to distributors who bring it to restaurants and grocery stores around the state.



Montana fishing regulations, set by FWP, still allow the biggest lake trout to swim free by allowing anglers to catch one fish over 36 inches per day, and requiring them to release the rest. The largest consumers of bull trout in the lake continue to thrive. This fishing regulation has been in place since 1996.  


This story is about intentions. The vast inland ocean we call Flathead Lake holds the manifestations of past intentions. It holds present intentions yet to manifest. And it holds those intentions yet to be set. 

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