The U.S. Forest Service has pulled the plug on a hapless native fish restoration project in the North Fork of the Blackfoot River.
On Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service announced it was withdrawing its June 2 decision to allow the use of rotenone poisoning in an upper stretch of the North Fork of the Blackfoot River.
The project, scheduled to begin in late July or early August after a dozen years in development, would have used rotenone to kill all the fish, including nonnative rainbow trout, in three alpine lakes and 67 miles of stream above the North Fork Falls.
Rotenone is a natural toxin produced by certain tropical plants, which indigenous people have used for centuries to catch fish. The poison kills fish by affecting the cell’s ability to produce energy. Conditions such as sunlight, water chemistry and temperature can degrade the compound, and it can be neutralized in the water using potassium permanganate.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks would have then stocked that section with native westslope cutthroat trout. The falls are 50 feet high and would have blocked any nonnative fish from moving up, so the stocked population could remain genetically pure. Currently, the North Fork has a mix of different hybrid trout, most of which carry no more than 17% westslope cutthroat genes.
The catch is the upper North Fork Blackfoot River is in the Scapegoat Wilderness. The Wilderness Act restricts the activities that can take place in wilderness, so usually man-made machines or chemicals aren’t allowed. However, the Forest Service can make certain allowances and grant exceptions for certain projects, which is what happened here. FWP carried out a similar project on the South Fork Flathead River in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
But then, on July 22, Wilderness Watch, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Friends of the Wild Swan filed a lawsuit in federal court asking that the Forest Service stop the project. The groups opposed the use of chemicals in the streams and the fact that the project required the use of motorboats, generators and helicopters to ferry equipment into the wilderness.
They also argued that the streams originally had no trout before the state started stocking nonnative fish in the mid-20th century. So there’s no reason to restock hatchery raised cutthroat trout that weren’t originally there, even though they’re native to Montana.
The judge scheduled an emergency hearing to try to resolve the matter before the project started, but the Forest Service pulled the project in advance of the hearing.
“It’s a shame it took a lawsuit to get the Forest Service to drop this decision that so blatantly violates the agency’s duties under the Wilderness Act,” said George Nickas, Wilderness Watch executive director in a release. “Citizens shouldn’t have to file lawsuits just to get the Forest Service to follow the law.”
The lawsuit challenged the fact that the Forest Service – specifically the Lolo and Helena-Lewis and Clark national forests – used a categorical exclusion to approve the project, which allowed the agency to avoid conducting a full environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
The agency won’t likely use a categorical exclusion if the project is approved in the future. According to the Forest Service withdrawal notice, “Any further consideration of this project will include further opportunities for public involvement.”
Mike Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director, said he hopes that’s the case.
“We appreciate that (Forest) Supervisor (Carolyn) Upton withdrew her previous decision for this project. But in the future, we hope she does a better job of taking our concerns seriously, instead of forcing us to file a lawsuit,” Garrity said.
The North Fork Blackfoot River project did go through a public process, but it was conducted by FWP, not the Forest Service. A year ago, FWP held online public meetings to explain the project and take public comment. Based upon the responses, the FWP commission approved the project at the end of 2020.
But then, just as the project was being finalized, a new gubernatorial administration took over. In April, newly assigned FWP director Hank Worsech put dozens of fish restoration projects on hold, pending approval by a newly nominated FWP commission. Angered, Montana fishermen pushed back.
As a result, Worsech approved nine projects before the commission met. That included the North Fork Blackfoot project, mainly because outfitter Kenny Long had a $30,000 contract to pack equipment up to the falls area.
Montana Trout Unlimited spokesman Clayton Elliot said in May that the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association found out that Long was going to lose the job because of Worsech’s decision, and “MOGA lit up the director’s office.”
So once again, the project was a go. That is until this week.
Elliot said he doesn’t think the project is dead.
“We’re disappointed to see this project not happen this season. I think it’s a sound project that’s been well vetted, and it’s grounded in good science,” Elliot said. “I’m looking forward to starting from ground zero and building off of what we’ve already done to get this project up for the next season.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.