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Outdoors Report: Managing Montana’s fish population

Posted at 9:10 AM, Aug 14, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-14 11:10:51-04

ANACONDA – Montana has 59 native fish species and many of them face hard times.

We take a look at how state fish biologists balance managing all of Montana’s fish in this week’s Outdoors Report.

State fish biologist Jim Olsen has dual responsibilities — to conserve Montana’s native fish, like cutthroat trout and also provide angling opportunities for non-native fish like brook and brown trout.

“It balances pretty well with what our management goal is — to try and manage 80% of our habitat for non-natives,” Olsen said. “That’s probably where I spend 80% of my time and then 20% is spent on this native fish restoration work.

He was surprised this year by opposition to a native fish restoration project on one of the tributaries to the Big Hole River.

“I got called all sorts of names this year, ‘you hate brook trout, you hate brown trout’ and that’s not the case at all,” Olsen said. “Brook trout and brown trout will always be our bread and butter management species, but we are losing our native fish. Our cutthroat are just disappearing and if we don’t do something they are going to disappear completely.”

Montana’s state fish the west slope cutthroat trout which occupies less than 10% of its entire historic range, and in the Big Hole Watershed there are only a few places left to catch one.

“If mule deer were only in 6% of where they used to be, people would be popping a cork and they would be all excited to do whatever they could to restore mule deer,” Olsen said. “But for some reason, cutthroat don’t bring that same public support with them.

Even through this lack of support, fish managers know by conserving Montana’s native fish they will also create a unique angling experience.

“You can go anywhere in the world and catch a brown trout or a rainbow trout,” Olsen pointed out. “there’s only one spot in the whole world you can go and catch west slope cutthroat, and that’s here and in a couple of neighboring states.”

A decision on the French Creek restoration project should be made soon.